Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Alice Corbin Henderson, &c.


No. 19

Emily Dickinson, addressing a bee: ‘Thou animated torrid-zone.’ The end of May, with its slatternly, incessant rains. A scattering of laggard spiræa petals eddy back against the run-off: ‘precocious boatmen’ or ‘a litter of women’s things.’ The partial re-rendering of a lost painting of an enormous orchid, fluttery white with a single modulating rose-color’d finger erect at its core. May so easily said, so unvarying, its permit perennial: ‘new and scant and crude.’ Is it Plotinus who talks of ‘the flight of the alone’? The solitary uncanny, fit beyond dithering. May’s rush so wolfish and determined into June’s trigger-load’d clampdown. During one late period rife with stupefying and sumptuous losses, including Emerson’s, he who’d ‘touched the secret Spring,’ Dickinson wrote: ‘The pussies dine on sherry now, and humming-bird cutlets.’

No. 20

Against empire’s vain memorial to its own human loss, scrupulous in its incommensurability: scrappy outlandishness, horse-nonsense, and bunk. Braying factotum, wiener pierced by a stick. Vanity of the base human commitment to a thuggery of ‘us.’ Baton twirling girls high-kneeing it down Main. Fatty the pursed embouchures of the shrewd liars, the Æolus-flatterers harping for corporate gain. A sentimental gin-sop lapses gamely into prayer. A ‘common’ soldier with blood-color’d epaulettes rehearses a story made retail-ready by euphemism. Pure blood-urge of manufactured urgency. Prodding the vulgar to accept some particular of a priori ‘evil,’ some make-ready of the final real ‘impossible either to correct or analyze.’ Up in the aerial vault the chimney swifts teeter and sail and thieve. Two rabbits, dog-spook’d, freeze.

Extent of my practice. Mid-WWI (1916), H. D. writes: “The chief enemy is not the middle-classes and the Philistine upon whom the young men of the nineties whetted their wit. It is the great overwhelming mechanical daemon, the devil of machinery, of which we can hardly repeat too often, the war is the hideous offspring.” Translate that into the current “era,” its daemon of relentless pixil-delivery and “access.” Harriet Monroe’s Poetry offers (1917) a selection of “Aboriginal Poetry.” Carl Sandburg, commenting rather irascibly, notes: “Suspicion arises definitely that the Red Man and his children committed direct plagiarisms on the modern imagists and vorticists.” And offers some très-Cathay samples:
My Love Has Departed

A loon
I thought it was
But it was
My love’s
Splashing oar.

To Sault Ste. Marie
He has departed.
My love has gone on before me.
Never again can I see him.
And, a “Love Charm Song”: “What are you saying to me? / I am arrayed like the roses, / And beautiful as they.” Alice Corbin Henderson claims: “The Indian song often means more than it says; it is content to give the image and not to talk about it—it is not ‘journalistic.’” And: “The ethnologists . . . have overlooked the literary significance of the Indian songs; and the tendency of others has been to Europeanize both sentiment and form. A translation of an Indian song that reads like an Elizabethan lyric gives little idea of the original.” One recalls Eliot’s claim (1928) that label’d Pound the “inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” (adding, presciently, “This is as much as to say that Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound. It is not to say that there is a Chinese poetry-in-itself, waiting for some ideal translator who shall be only translator.”) One senses a post-Imagistes shift in the period-style (not unlike the recent “hybridizing” foolishness, flatterers and lickspittles eager to declare some kind of debased loyalty . . .) Henderson writes elsewhere how “Nowadays everyone is writing imagist vers libre, or what the writers conceive as such, particularly those who at the beginning made the most outcry against it. Free verse is now accepted in good society, where rhymed verse is even considered a little shabby and old-fashioned.” Largely the work of “demon saleswoman” Amy Lowell. (Undoubtedly, each period-style gets rear’d up by—or stuck with—its “own” “demon saleswoman”: “These / Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)” The candidates are legion.) I find myself mystify’d by the pleasure of reading Alice Corbin Henderson’s “In The Desert”:
      I have seen you, O king of the dead,
More beautiful than sunlight.

Your kiss is like quicksilver;
But I turned my face aside
Lest you should touch my lips.

In the field with the flowers
You stood darkly.

My knees trembled, and I knew
That no other joy would be like this.

But the warm field, and the sunlight,
And the few years of my girlhood
Came before me, and I cried,
Not yet!
Not yet, O dark lover!

You were patient.
                      —I know you will come again.

I have seen you, O king of the dead,
More beautiful than sunlight.

      Here in the desert, under the cottonwoods
That keep up a monotonous wind-murmur of leaves,
I can hear the water dripping
Through the canals in Venice
From the oar of the gondola
Hugging the old palaces,
Beautiful old houses
Sinking quietly into decay. . . . .

O sunlight—how many things you gild
With your eternal gold!
Sunlight—and night—are everlasting.

      Once every twenty-four hours
Earth has a moment of indecision:
Shall I go on?—
Shall I keep turning?—
Is it worth while?

Everything holds its breath.
The trees huddle anxiously
On the edge of the arroyo,
And then, with a tremendous heave,
Earth shoves the hours on towards dawn.

      Four o'clock in the afternoon.
A stream of money is flowing down Fifth Avenue.

      They speak of the fascination of New York
Climbing aboard motor-busses to look down on the endless play
From the Bay to the Bronx.
But it is forever the same:
There is no life there.

      Watching a cloud on the desert,
Endlessly watching small insects crawling in and out of the shadow of a cactus,
A herd-boy on the horizon driving goats,
Uninterrupted sky and blown sand:
Nothing but life on the desert,
Intense life.

      The hill cedars and piñons
Point upward like flames,
Like smoke they are drawn upward
From the face of the mountains.
Over the sunbaked slopes,
Patches of sun-dried adobes straggle;
Willows along the acequias in the valley
Give cool streams of green;
Beyond, on the bare hillsides,
Yellow and red gashes and bleached white paths
Give foothold to the burros,
To the black-shawled Mexican girls
Who go for water.
Is it contiguity or divinity, how it recalls lines in Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, narrator Vera Cartwheel disorient’d aboard a Grey Goose bus, seeing “by the side of the road, a tall man with a child perched on his lean shoulders, a double-headed man, staring at nothingness or beyond it”:
There was now no landscape but the soul’s, and that is the inexactitude, the ever shifting and the distant. I would never know the man’s name . . . Yet he would remain forever engraved on memory’s whirling disc, the double-headed shape in curdled mist, as tantalizing as my ignorance of life. All my life I had been reaching for the tangible, and it had evaded me, much like the myth of Tantalus, much as if the tangible itself were an illusion. My life had been made up of just these disrelated, delusive images hovering only for a moment at the margin of consciousness, then passing . . .

Alice Corbin Henderson, 1881-1949

Friday, May 27, 2011

Finish Up

Under the Chicago ‘L’

Jittery. Trying to quell the haughty inebriant sporting of a prose poem (“No. 18” I call it, preferring to clothe my “doings” in the genera of number—against the fastuously ninny-arrogant look of some of my cohort “with they shoes and all”). Where am I? Thinking (desultory) about ways of selecting words—“putting words into relation”—I recall’d Nabokov’s brash insistence (in Speak, Memory) on “colored hearing”:
        I present a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hard mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation).
        I hasten to complete my list before I am interrupted. In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by “brassy with an olive sheen.” In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of the soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with “Rose Quartz” in Maerz and Puol’s Dictionary of Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv. The first author to discuss audition colorée was, as far as I know, an albino physician in 1812, in Erlangen.
The perennial light betraying some modicum of mirth in Nabokov’s eye: just how deep in cheek is that polylingual tongue? What if, though, one took the claim seriously? Array’d the vocables according to color? (Conceptualist manias dog “us” all.) One might assemble and arrange words to mimic, when sound’d, the colors in a painting, something simple, a late Rothko (“the dark is always at the top"), one of the Brown and Grey series of 1969. Gradually tackling the variance and interwindings of something like Pollock’s drips, a “Blue Poles, No. 11” in words . . .

(Pollock’s saying, in 1947, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess”: is that the “source” and impetus for Jack Spicer, in Vancouver (1965) saying “. . . essentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring—because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem” and “. . . given a source of energy which you can direct, you can direct yourself out of the picture . . . you don’t impose your will on what is coming through”? Probably not: it’s a common enough occurrence, innit? that I am a mere lightning rod for truth and beauty . . .)

Where am I? I open’d Speak, Memory looking for the reference to Nabokov’s dysesthesia and read: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” (Opening of Chapter One, Nabokov reports in the “Foreword,” written in Ithaca, print’d in The New Yorker under the title “Perfect Past,” April 15, 1950—“Harold Ross hit it off so well with the ghost of my past.”) A kind of pre-iteration of Beckett’s (out of the 1954 Waiting for Godot) lines: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” (Probably not, common enough, etc.)

No. 18

Nothing like lyrical pomp to undo a storyteller’s zone, its wholly general ratifying clench. Like a distaff with ‘a bit of slub depending.’ Ryder. Meaning a yarn poorly spun, one with bumps and irregularities at intervals. The day refusing to compose itself, noticeably entrench’d under an onslaught of lousy weather. The sere thunderclaps of my spent youth: a skid’s worth of boards splaying down off a forklift. A tall grass crayfish hole the size of a man’s boot back by the artesian well, its constant watery rope lank and stuttery. Cold-numb’d fingers pincer’d numb-er. Memory’s form—like Picasso call’d cubism’s—is a ‘sum of destructions.’ The days’re number’d: finish up, finish up.

Mark Rothko, “Brown and Gray,” 1969

Mark Rothko, “Brown and Gray,” 1969

Mark Rothko, “Brown and Gray,” 1969

Mark Rothko, 1903-1970

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lethargy and Heap


No. 17

At the airfield continuous rain lashes the windsock. The unsecured corner of a Cessna’s tarpaulin pops. Local breeze effect, the orange ripstop nylon. A scrawny man in a doublet and hosiery with a magnificent hat shaped like a strawberry impugns the sky’s intent, querulous and naïve. A local nuisance, royally countenanced. Torn books in heaps. Pointless avidity vying with poignant detachment: ‘Keen as the arrows / Of that silver sphere / Whose intense lamp narrows, &c.’ Somewhere a killdeer’s high thin registry of alarm—k’dee-dee-dee—quashes the supremacy of melody. Like the broken wing’d convert Eliot saying ‘I no longer strive to strive towards such things.’ A tiny snout’d weevil the color of a Carthusian liquor makes an indifferent journey up a leg. Asa Gray’s grasses in a staid divergent array: Natura non facit saltum.

Benjamin, in “On the Concept of History” (1940):
A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.
Oddly caught between a finicky concern for each and every negligible (eyelash in the crosshairs) and a whelming lethargy. Pertinent, too: Horkheimer and Adorno, in “On the Theory of Ghosts” (1944):
Individuals are reduced to a mere sequence of instantaneous experiences which leave no trace, or rather whose trace is hated as irrational, superfluous, and “overtaken” in the literal sense of the word. Just as every book which has not been published recently is suspect, and the idea of history outside the specific sphere of historical science makes modern men nervous, so the past becomes a source of anger.
In the black lake of lethargy (wherein I slap up minuscule waves like a minor Tantalus), I think of Zukofsky’s Spinozan line (Bottom: On Skakespeare):
The more an image is associated with many other things, the more often it flourishes . . . The more causes there are by which it can be excited.
Struck of a sudden by a sketchy mental depict of a Spinozan pinball machine, solenoids wildly firing, beyond tilt, a single ball “satisfying all comers.” For isn’t Zukofsky’s gist that of extending quantity (and its excitements) by defining relations rather than by the mere cumulus (tumulus, mound) of a heap’d up array? (Meaning: Spinoza’s / Zukofsky’s is no call for some “many other things” pile of things like Silliman’s The Alphabet. No compelling reason for the new-fangled machinery that allow one to put several balls into play simultaneously, irremediably fouling the effect of any body “English.”) Zukofsky, rather crabbedly setting up an intent (what’ll out in the formula “love : reason :: eyes : mind”): “The definition of love embodied in Shakespeare’s writing that the critic has seen will but multiply instances.” Counterpoint to Spinoza’s line Zukofsky puts another (out of “De intellectus emendatione”):
For the idea of quantity, if the understanding perceives it by means of a cause, then it determines the quantity, as when it perceives a body to be formed from the motion of a plane, a plane from the motion of a line, a line from the motion of a point . . .
(Quantity’s gain’d only by seizures of relation—see Fourier’s La série distribue les harmonies. Les attractions sont proportionnelles aux destinées—a line rejecting the mere encumbrances of “point,” “point,” “point.”) Protean doubts (forever trying on my only doublet for size). What about the immutable “drifts of some several things X noted”—that “genre”? Complacency of the eye, it, too, is a “literary” vice—and produces a narrow and improbable notion of verisimilitude, so punishing “with unexpected severity that life called real” (Cozarinsky). Is Beckett’s remark that “L’art adore les sauts” made knowing the Linnaean “Natura non facit saltum.”? Yo no se.

Louis Zukofsky, c. 1926

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jennifer Moxley’s Coastal

In a Greenhouse

No. 16

The violinist’s repeat’d salvos of Prokofiev. No relations limn’d where none previously perceived. Isn’t all art ‘about’ the moral chaos accompanying one’s short ungainly journey across the turbulent earth? A hid distillery in the woods. Henceforth gainsaid only by a kind of irony. You better believe it, Bubba. A black iris unfurls its churlish intensity in flags, giddy with loss. Futures in pork bellies, futures in grains, numbers input into a registry wholly unprepossessing and aloof, a discourse clear’d of amenity’s social chokehold. Two woodpeckers fly recklessly up out of the high crotch of a red maple, divagatory and loud. So disclosing the botch’d cenacle of a nest. The ‘enormous blank’ in the sentimental novel is fill’d with insipidity ally’d to tedium, melancholy bitch’d by defeat.

That yak yesterday about “bidding farewell to poetry to succumb to the vulgarity of narrative”—with its add’d sop of “we, too, all, in the plangency of our ‘era,’ do” (measure both sap and ostentatiousness by the number of excess commas in a remark)—prompt’d, I suspect, by two things. One: Jennifer Moxley’s Coastal (The Song Cave, 2011), in particular its lines:
                                  We are trying, the both of us,
to make work that matters. To remain true
to that initial commitment. Artifice, dialogue, beauty.
A letter to a friend. “This glamorless isolation is killing me.”
I cannot accompany you into the abstract,
but grow more narrative by the year,
saying things to get them said,
feeling no leisure to take old risks.
Two: Jordan Davis’s recent minor screed against the “cul de sac” of mere “aesthetics”—a thing to be replaced with a kind of “shapeliness” that certainly sounds just like the same old same old paraphrasable narrative jaunt, that knowing trek of a “good story”: “I have come around to the idea that it is more ambitious to create two or three page situation slash anecdote that has a shape as a poem that you the reader hold in your mind and recall and want to share with people. It is just fundamentally more ambitious than to repolish the Stevensian lyric.” (“Just fundamentally” never an argument makes.) Davis’s long worry’d about popularity, so a measure of the art depending on its “sharability”: easily the epigone’s late though logical next step. Moxley’s piece—and, seemingly, position—: somewhat more complicated. A rather chatty epistolary thing in seven parts, address’d (reading through the dedicatory “for Monique van Genderen”) to the Los Angeles painter, Coastal attempts, broadly, to gauge something of the effects of the post-9/11 psyche on one particular coterie of writers and artists (with an inevitably larger swathe—a generation—fully imply’d). Rundown of one’s own personal 9/11 events—with lovely details amongst the now mundane (“It was a beautiful day. / Incredibly beautiful, exactly like today . . .” recalling the insipidity of Charles Bernstein’s early report “It’s 8:23 in New York” opening line: “What I can’t describe is how beautiful the day is in New York; clear skies, visibility all the way to the other side of wherever you think you are looking”—though Moxley clearly sees, too, how such “Vignettes of contrast serve self-pity.”) Lovely: a moment of wrong-seeing, what percept makes of news prior to its being “re-calibrated”: “The image: a bi-plane / leaving an I-beam, disabused by a small / black-and-white tv perched on a file cabinet . . .” (Throughout and somewhat disturbingly: the simulacrum-effect: “just something on tv . . .”) Moxley:
                                  The world seemed mute, a backdrop,
too perfect. Chickadee chirps echoed against it
but seemed fake like nature tape loop. We could not
hear them, blocked by the loud buzz of what ifs,
the deafening hum of the stunned structure,
the “me” of belief underneath our feet
yoked into the juggernaut “we.”
(What the “stunned structure” is, I do not know. It would seem a little pompous and vain if it’s the earth itself, though the “underneath our feet” points one that way. Too, it’s difficult to puzzle through the tone of that “me” into “we,” whence the inexorability of that yoking?) If Coastal is not “just” about 9/11, it also repeatedly posits that “me”-identity as a thing vulnerably and inexchangeably its own, a rather knowingly bourgeois “stance.” And repeatedly that “self” (a little cartoonishly spoil’d—Moxley writes: “Since moving to the outer edge / of the almost forgotten I have developed a loathing / for the pride of regions. The local wants to distract you / into forgetting that there is a world. ‘I won’t’ / I say, ‘I won’t,’ stamping my feet in place . . .”) approaches being lost, blotted out by history, by the body. What’s not entirely clear is whether that presumed loss is a blessing or a curse (see the “juggernaut ‘we’”—suggesting both the “Let’s roll”-ery of the battle-keen and those who’d attempt to brace against the idiocy of revenge . . .) Here, recalling a California visit (“sipping the honey peach of a rich sauterne, / so jet lagged and mastered by valium”), the self’s loss is a sign of contentment:
                                                              The next
morning, sitting amidst the eucalyptus debris
of your tiny backyard, I was felled by the
incredible warmth. I thought the sun could burn away
the entirety of my existence, stunned as I was
by the surreality of being so thoughtlessly content.
Or here, where the blotting “expulsion” out of the moment renders it with renew’d clarity, one directly coupled with poetry:
                  Motivation should come from
the quest, you know, the one infused with
wrenching nostalgia and the loss of all your friends.
Nothing like a piece of string to focus the attention.
Or a line of poetry, snaking down the length of the page
tempting me to taste the sweetness of the body’s
pulse and risk expulsion from this moment
into a fogged sprint toward a sheer drop.
Clarity of vision is the gift you get
once you have started to fall.
Which, in the untower’d “milieu” of the piece, one thinks, ought to read with high irony’s beck defining it, though the cues (is “you know” a cue?) appear minimal and contradictory. (Reading “tone”: inherent danger of the epistolary poem.) At the end of the piece Moxley writes of being diagnosed with “sarcoidosis” (“payback for my loathing of small ponds” and “a disease that clusters / in central Maine”), requiring what sounds like a whole bowel irrigation (“An inelegant sense / of loss mixed with my gratitude for bourgeois privacy / when I downed the two-week-dose of Fleet enema / in a few short hours”). Vaguely, not at all convinced by my thinking, I wonder if we’re approaching that territory whence Frank O’Hara remark’d of Robert Lowell’s “confessional manner” that it allow’d Lowell to “get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset.” It’s not clear how “upset” Moxley is—how read the next line?—“The sensation was like / gagging on sea water, or like all of the saliva / of prehistory being concentrated in your mouth.” Somewhere between earnest (“gagging”) and farce (“the saliva / of prehistory”)? Microtending of tonal shifts need’d. The end of Coastal moves back into something akin to the “mute world” that end’d its first part—a media-saturated world, more “deafening hum” to compromise the self:
When the body’s content empties out
the “you” of convictions no longer exists. The poet
of cultivated mystique denied identity’s protection
is just another sick person in a hospital bracelet
willing to take orders. Gradually I lost myself
in this nightmare (which was a childhood fear).
As the hours of the arduous test progressed
I became more than usually media vulnerable,
and finally I all but vanished into the dubbed voices
and lawless cruelty of Once Upon a Time in the West.
Sergio Leone’s 1968 western, with a villainous Henry Fonda. Shapeliness: in the opening lines Moxley’s made “the sky the color / of Henry Fonda’s eyes, bright, crisp, and principled.” (Is that shapeliness, or its obfuscatory sidekick, chance?) If there’s an argument in Coastal for not “forgetting that there is a world”—(see, too, lines in the fifth section reading, “Poems in recent journals have forgotten / there’s a world. That’s a new trick: / to leave the world out yet still be ‘political’”), why the insistent beck and call of its—the world’s, or the self’s—moments of disappearance?

Jennifer Moxley

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Never Any End to Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris


No. 15

Morning, its intelligibly blue sky swept clean. The rain, if it meant anything, meant its relentlessness, a word sucker-punch’d by its own exultant aping. Everything’s shrunk, is what I think with a kind of random hysteria at seeing how minimal the accoutrements of the surroundings turn out to be. Akin to the obligatory tough surface writing of the investigatory dick: routine nodding out under a skylight. That night in Corot’s pre-plein-air Dardagny where I jarred myself loose of a bag of cut horse, its fit drubbing, and fell to turning the shiny pages of an enormous plate-filled book of Titian’s ceilings. In one cosmology of the unkempt, the ‘thin, catlike’ Comte de Lautréamont is murdered by Napoleon’s thugs. My unsung longing is simple: ‘the common light again to share.’

Whence arrives Enrique Vila-Matas’s anecdotage in Never Any End to Paris? Witness. Here’s the figure of Vila-Matas, flush with dough in La Rotonde in Paris, rather “butter’d” (“my seventh glass of champagne . . . to free my mind of all moral and political ties”), summoning up “the figure of a former customer of that café, the artist Domergue—a painter of elongated women, star of what we might call calendar art:
I then evoke Vila-Matas’s d the the figure of his domestic servant—“my housemaid,” Domergue called him—a little man with a bulging forehead and a black goatee, who sometimes sat with Domergue’s painter friends in the café and had a drink with them, though he never said a word.
Vila-Matas’s narrator (after “laughing inwardly at this little man”) recalls how “he spoke once when Domergue’s painter friends asked him if he cleaned any other bathrooms, to which the little man replied that he didn’t. And when Domergue’s friends asked him what, in that case, he spent the rest of his time doing, he said, looking at painters and overthrowing the Russian government. They all laughed at the doubly witty remark. ‘That’s what we do, too,’ they said. What they didn’t know was that this man was Lenin.” Here’s Cocteau, circa 1964, in The Paris Review:
I will recount one thing; then you must let me rest. You perhaps know the work of the painter Domergue? The long girls; calendar art, I am afraid. He had a domestique in those days —a “housemaid” who would make the beds, fill the coal scuttles. We all gathered in those days at the Café Rotonde. And a little man with a bulging forehead and black goatee would come there sometimes for a glass, and to hear us talk. And to “look at the painters.” This was the “housemaid” of Domergue, out of funds. We asked him once (he said nothing and merely listened) what he did. He said he meant to overthrow the government of Russia. We all laughed, because of course we did, too. That is the kind of time it was! It was Lenin.
And, reading Susan Sontag’s short preface—“The Exile’s Cosmopolis”—to Cozarinsky’s Urban Voodoo, I am struck by the similar phrasings. Sontag (of the filmmaker / writer Cozarinsky):
The writer’s sensibility has been . . . reinforced by that of the filmmaker formed in the earr of Godard. Like Godard, who said that he wanted to make fiction films that are like documentaries and documentaries that are like fiction films, Cozarinsky wants to write (autobiographical) stories that are like essays, essays that are like stories. His lavish use of quotations in the form of epigraphs reminds me of the quotation-strewn films of Godard.
Vila-Matas’s version:
Urban Voodoo gave the impression Cozarinsky had written it after having taken very seriously what Godard said about making fictional films that might be documentaries and documentaries that were like fictional films. Urban Voodoo, a book that was ahead of its time in the way it mixed essay with fiction and advanced new and interesting tendencies in literature, seemed composed of stories that were like essays and essays that were like stories. It was also laden with quote in the form of epigraphs, reminiscent of those films by Godard that are littered with quotes.
Toward the end of Never Any End to Paris Vila-Matas reports finding a “short extract” in “Beckett’s Molloy, which I opened at random at one of the bookstalls on the banks of the Seine:
“You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept. To hell with it anyway.”
Credo, one supposes, and permission. And yet. There remains a kind of struggle between Vila-Matas’s book made of books and a book made of “experience.” One brilliant juxtaposing: Hemingway’s Kilimanjaro and Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. Roussel: “an extremely cerebral writer who never exploited his personal experiences . . . devoted himself, thanks to a method of phonetic combinations he’d invented, to telling stories that emerged from the prose itself . . .” Hemingway’s witness’d talking in a “documentary on American writers in Paris”—likely invent’d—at Studio des Ursulines about the “iceberg principle” (Vila-Matas cobbling together bits out of another Paris Review interview):
The Old Man and the Sea could have been over a thousand pages long, but this wasn’t what I wanted to do. First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader, in spite of the fact that experience at sea, for example, was something I had a lot of. But this experience does not explicitly appear, though of course it is there, but it can’t be seen. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard. For example, I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales, and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet long and lost him. So I left all that out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg. *
Contra the blasé iterations of voyages (and insistings of its “unrelieved and mere incidency” by Roussel—out of “How I Wrote Certain of My Books”):
“It seems apt that I should mention here a rather curious fact. I have traveled a great deal. Notably in 1920-1921 I traveled around the world by way of India, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific archipelagos, China, Japan and America. I already knew the principal countries of Europe, Egypt and all of North Africa, and later I visited Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Persia. Now from all these travels I never took anything for my books. It seems to me that this is worth mentioning, since it clearly shows just how much imagination accounts for everything in my work.”
All irony quash’d, I read Vila-Matas’s construct of youth re-assess’d as rather tragic. He writes somewhere (of that first novel, La asesina ilustrada, a book Vila-Matas did actually write): “These days I see The Lettered Assassin basically as my farewell to poetry. The hidden plot of the book would be the quiet tragedy of a youth who’s bidding farewell to poetry to succumb to the vulgarity of narrative.” As we, too, all, in the plangency of our “era,” do.
* The full “principle of the iceberg” reply—circa 1958—in The Paris Review:
        If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen. If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.
        The Old Man and the Sea could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it and all the processes of how they made their living, were born, educated, bore children, et cetera. That is done excellently and well by other writers. In writing you are limited by what has already been done satisfactorily. So I have tried to learn to do something else. First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.
        Anyway, to skip how it is done, I had unbelievable luck this time and could convey the experience completely and have it be one that no one had ever conveyed. The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy and lately writers have forgotten there still are such things. Then the ocean is worth writing about just as man is. So I was lucky there. I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.

A Jean-Gabriel Domergue “Calendar Girl”

A Jean-Gabriel Domergue “Calendar Girl”

Jean-Gabriel Domergue, “Le French Can-Can”

Jean-Gabriel Domergue, 1889-1962

Monday, May 23, 2011



Doubt: the æther-made disjecti membra poetæ. Disjoint days of lawn work. Quack grass versus crab grass. (See, too, quitch, squitch, scutch, and couch grasses. See the somewhat coarser, taller Johnson grass.) A red-belly’d woodpecker splurting out its liquid vocables up in the maple. Dirt under the nails. “This state of things I have thought it necessary to premise for the information of the general reader.” (See Michel Leiris, in Literature Considered as Bullfighting: “. . . my aim was to condense . . . a series of events and images I refused to exploit by letting my imagination work on them. In short: the negation of a novel.”) Why that quotidian need to scituate oneself amongst the things of the physical world? (I like the ancient orthography, its ambivalence play’d out in excess: “Popo being an Island Scituate in the midst of the River.”) In Urban Voodoo, the book of what Edgardo Cozarinsky calls “postcards” (“In the same way postcards seize and reproduce the most typical aspect of a landscape, a monument, or a face, these texts would like to manufacture common, public images, a déjà vu that would dilute whatever is too subjective in an individual’s sensibility and experience”), the Argentine exile Cozarinsky adds, intersplicing, plenteous quotes, what he calls “residues of reading, a habit I find less and less fundamentally different from writing”:
To those found objects, other people’s written words, I have entrusted the continuity of my own written words, the lighting, brutal or perfidious, of the text just read and of the other to come.
I have written these postcards in English, a “foreigner’s English” I later translated into my native Spanish, less because of autobiographical reasons or because English has been for me the language of literature, of the imagination, than out of desire to erase the notion of an original—so that certain turns of phrase found in translation would be incorporated later into the translated language, until the original itself becomes translation.
(How different, Ashbery’s admit’d reasoning behind the “French Poems” in The Double Dream of Spring: “I wrote the group of poems called ‘French poems’ in French and translated them myself into English, with the idea of avoiding customary word-patterns and associations.” A formal considering, without “doubt.”) One of Cozarinsky’s quotes—Barthes, out of Sade, Fourier, Loyola:
The truth is, there is no longer any linguistic space outside bourgeois ideology. Our language comes from it, returns to it, stays locked in it. The only possible riposte is neither challenge nor destruction but, simply, theft—to break up the ancient text of culture, of science, of literature, and disperse its features in unrecognizable patterns, in the same way stolen merchandise is faked.
In Never Any End to Paris, Enrique Vila-Matas makes Cozarinsky’s Urban Voodoo kin to Godard’s films, suggesting it’s “written . . . after having taken very seriously what Godard said about making fictional films that might be documentaries and documentaries that were like fictional films.” Pertinent, too, to Vila-Matas’s own work: “. . . a book . . . that seemed composed of stories that were like essays and essays that were like stories.” Regarding the plenteousness of the quotes (“reminiscent of those films by Godard that are littered with quotes”):
. . . the apparently capricious quotes or grafts lend a magnificent eloquence to the discourse: the quotes or cultural references are incorporated into the structure in a prodigious way; instead of placidly joining the rest of the text, they collide with it, elevated to an unpredictable power, becoming in another chapter of the book.
One chapter in Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris reads in its entirety:
“Having lived in Paris unfits you for living anywhere, including Paris.” (John Ashbery)
Doubt. The noise of the mowers through the windows. Blue oil-burn cloudlets in raggy squads of dispersal. Scent of fuel and lilac. Catkins rubbish’d by the thunderstorm. Poe’s writer-provoking lines in “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), claiming (of “The Raven”) “that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” Who believes it? My doubt-druthers go with Marguerite Duras (quoted in Never Any End to Paris wherein doubt “reigns”):
I can say what I like, but I shall never know why people write and how it is people don’t write. In life, there comes a time, and I think it is total, that we cannot escape, where we doubt everything: that doubt is writing.

Edgardo Cozarinsky
(Photograph by Hartwig Klappert)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Vila-Matas / Matta-Clark

Two Ladders

Rain, and the yellow slicker’d bicyclist squinting into it, its shabby dialectical slatternliness. Solitary skank crow tensing down into a crouch, pre-flight spring loading. How the percepts cock and release. Enrique Vila-Matas says Rilke says “Scale the depths of things; irony will never descend there.” A seemingly perfect irony there: scale, its mount and measure. See The Boke of Noblesse: “To aproche the towne for to scale yt.” See Nietzsche’s lovely aphorism: “From what you would know and measure, you must take leave, at least for a time. Only after having left town, you see how high its towers rise above the houses.” The depths a kind of ascent—a dodge against irony—call’d into question by the formula itself. At the heart of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris, an irony-inflect’d reassessment of one’s own “funereal literary debut”—“a funereal monument—like Tutankhamen’s tomb: whoever opens it dies”— a “poisonous and criminal book” call’d The Lettered Assassin:
I decided my novel would be organized in the form of a prologue and commentaries on a manuscript fo poetic prose that would appear in the middle of the book. I wrote the prologue, and then, one after another, with exasperating slowness due to my being a novice writer, came the diabolical notes or commentaries, behind which crouched the Death of the unsuspecting reader who, toward the middle of the book, would unknowingly read the manuscript that, as my malevolent narrator would reveal at the end of the book, caused the death of all who read it.
Evident tenderness towards one’s own younger self: “with intellectual glasses and a ridiculous Sartresque pipe, . . . rigorously black shirt and trousers, . . . face inscrutable, absent, terribly modern,” and reading “what could be called the noir pantheon of literature: Lautréamont, de Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Artaud, Roussel.” (And age’s counter to youth’s insisting that happiness is “stupid and vulgar,” a thing somewhat bourgeois in its tenor: “At the beginning of Anti-Oedipus we find this great sentence by Foucault, “Do not believe that because you are a revolutionary you must feel sad.’” And: “‘I have embarked on the study of metaphysics several times, but happiness always interrupted,’ said Macedonio Fernández.”) It is, admittedly, the mots I read the book for: the shiny literary pluckings of a congenial man. (That, and the oddly comforting calling forth of early ’seventies Paris: vestiges of Les Halles, its ironwork and trou, post-’68 jumpiness and camaraderie among les jeunes, the graffiti—and the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the thuggish anti-riot forces) presence—evident still.) The young Vila-Matas, a self-identifying “situationist” à l'époque, recalls going to see Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle and being “profoundly bored, as it was a film to be read”:
The only thing that appeared on the screen were texts, very occasionally punctuated by the fleeting vision of a few images intended to illustrate the horror of the world of show business but which came from movies I really liked, such as Johnny Guitar; it was only at these moments, when the fleeting images of great fictional films appeared, that I enjoyed myself . . .
Pluckings. Vila-Matas capable of the deft counterpoint: how “the surrealists proposed to cheer up the sinister and solemn Pantheon of Paris a little: slice it down the middle and pull the two halves fifty centimeters apart.” (Tout à coup: recalling Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural splittings and cuts, “nonuments” of the ruin’d polis. Is “literary plucking” akin to what Matta-Clark calls “voyeurism”? “It takes tremendous devotion and patience. But like a ready-made one works to fill in the blanks, the uncompleted silent actions framed in windows. It needs constant attention, like an illicit form of meditation. Good eyesight. Keen sense of change . . .”) Against (“Speaking of pantheons”): “the most ironic phrase I know—perhaps the ironic phrase par excellence.” And Vila-Matas provides “the epitaph Marcel Duchamp wrote for his own tombstone”:
      D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent.
      (After all, it’s always other people who die.)

No. 14

Languor in the bowings interrupt’d:
Furious blunt-finger’d pizzicato. Mid-
May: a solitary gnatcatcher works
The viburnum, unabash’d. Humble be
The virtuoso amongst wayfarers. Surround’d
By a citizenry of duck’d
Reply to the moral demands
It refuses to comprehend, busy
With its gimcrackery, its gimmicks,
Its self-assess’d gimlet-eyed
Vim. Sentence by sentence a
Failure. Failure after failure unsentenced.

Gordon Matta-Clark, “Splitting,” 1974

Gordon Matta-Clark, “Splitting,” 1974

Gordon Matta-Clark, 1943-1978

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Two Trains

Temps trending “up.” The sodden green morn. Black night’s blasé patter diminish’d. Beckett, somewhere: “L’art adore les sauts”sauts = “jumps, leaps.” The eye’s darting complicities, born of congenital skittishness: is it enough? I am stuck with “seeing”—how it mangles and discards, and hectors and connects. How it officiates the unstable zoom to write. How it is pull’d to see in mimickry what others see. (One bounce point: Stan Brakhage’s misquoting of Blake’s “We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro’ the Eye.” Brakhage puts a “with” in it—“see with not Thro’”—marking what? degree of percept or rampant habit of passivity?) Because I am reading Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris (New Directions, 2011)—a text “about” irony both ruminant and giddy (Vila-Matas begins, with “Beams of Light” fix’d up against some Augury of the Ironic: “I went to Key West in Florida this year to enter the annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest”), I turn to the Julien Gracq quoted therein: “In the hunt for the exact word, there are two breeds: the trappers and the stalkers: Rimbaud and Mallarmé. The second group invariably has a higher percentage of successes, their yield might not bear comparison . . . but they never come back with live specimens.” Making distinct (distinctly parallel) a kind of earnest-obligatory seeing with (its tedium) and the wild-form pounce phenomena of seeing through. Isn’t that, too, partly what Pound’s getting at “with” the lines at the end of Canto LXXXI:
                        To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
        Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . .
That “diffidence that faltered” following “to have done instead of not doing / this is not vanity” throws a roadblock up against any who’d claim Pound a “mere” Rimbaud: he’s working a fine modesty against overweening arrogance, history’s beckonings against the vanity of the specious new. (Ooof.) Is it—Rimbaud versus Mallarmé, diffidence versus jump, seeing “with” versus “through”—akin to George Perec’s “home” versus “everywhere”? Quoted, again, in Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris (he calls it “being sedentary or a traveler” and “being a rank nationalist or a spiritual nomad”). Perec (originally out of Species of Spaces):
      To put down roots, to rediscover or fashion your roots, to carve the place that will be yours out of space, and build, plant, appropriate, millimeter by millimeter, your “home”: to belong completely in your village, knowing you’re a true inhabitant of the Cévennes, or of Poitou.
      Or else to own only the clothes you stand up in, to keep nothing, to live in hotels and change them frequently, and change towns, and change countries; to speak and read any one of four of five languages; to feel at home nowhere, but at ease almost everywhere.
(Beckett: “L’espace vous intéresse? Faisons-le craquer. / Le temps vous tracasse? Tuons-le tous ensemble.” Roughly: “Space concern you? Break it up. / Time got you worry’d? Kill it all together.”) Sweeping surveillance versus pinpointing, nabbing. Brakhage, in notes for a piece call’d “eyes” (1971)—“I was at last permitted to ride in a Pittsburgh Policecar, camera in hand”—out of Brakhage Scrapbook:
“Polis is eyes,” said Charles Olson, having found the archeological root of the word-end (thus beginning) of, say, “metropolis,” etc. “Police is a clear etymological derivative of ‘polis.’” . . .
      The Police, then, are the public eyes; and they are, thus, expected to be Specialists of that ability-to-respond which most of the rest of the society has lost all Metro sense-of.
Sad state of it: all the looking / seeing left to les flics. So Paul Metcalf, in “I-57”—“57 is my spine, Sikeston to Chicago”—nabs a couple sentences of Charles Olson (talking with Gloucester neighbor Herbert Kenny): “I mean something I believe we possess crucially. I think our body is our soul. And if you don’t have your body in a factor of creation, you don’t have a soul.” Metcalf, one of the diffident ones, collage-capable of a jump. Olson continues, pertinently, about the “nature of perception, of attention”:
Which is a spiritual condition. You could put it, intensity. I mean, the amount of slackness today, the lackness, the limpness, is all in the fact that you don’t need attention any more, you don’t need your perceptions any more. It’s all taken care of for you by the environment of the automobile, your house, of the economy, of the money system. In fact there isn’t any money, there’s credit. In fact, it’s worse. I mean this is a crazy sort of a post-nature, post-natural thing that the species has gotten into . . . And I thought, and I still think, creation is crucial; and if you don’t stay close to it, you lose everything. That’s all, just everything.
That in 1969. “In fact, it’s worse.” (Robert Gibbons point’d the Olson out to me, and I thank him.)

No. 12

Unplumb’d hesitancy of scrawl. That
Moment of thin-lipped poise
In advance of the broken
Earnest: ‘make each / Prescribe to
Other as each other’s leech.’
Thronging the grassy slough, sudden
The suck of particular: bob
Of sandhill, flush of reluctant
Rail. The precise way grief
Derails a giddy encumbrance, foisting
Off its niggardly conceit, the
Ink abrupt, unclotted and black.

No. 13

The eye smarts up according
To its wont and through-
Put, or dulls down intelligibly
Blank. A dentist’s drill power’d
Off and hung up, frank
Steel pincer’d by fat fingers.
Cramp’d calligraphy of a solitary
Beetle’s traversal of the linoleum’d
Reaches. Sight is a dizzying
Uncongenial bricolage of brute innuendo
And helpless retrieval: propriety is
Its scat, seeing its song.

Stan Brakhage, 1933-2003

Two strips of “I Take These Truths,” the first part of Trilogy (1995), by Stan Brakhage

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Feign’d and Unfeign’d

In a Garden

Magnolias hitting the skids, lilacs coming into “they” own. Lower’d sky like pie dough, edges crimp’d. Coldish. The bicycle’s unwobbling pivot stirring down into the sleep-reaches, pulling up its sludge, the gewgaws bobbing in its sludge. Pascal says: “It is almost impossible to feign love without turning into a lover.” The same for writing. What’s it mean “to feign writing”? Try scribbling a little and “before you know it” you’ll be writing. In Enrique Vila-Matas’s new Never Any End to Paris (New Directions, 2011)—whence the Pascal—Vila-Matas, riffing about “irony,” says: “Do you understand me when I say one says the most by not saying anything? ” With no irony: I do, and perfectly. Sudden is the need to refer to something—anything—“out there” in the world. The greasy magnolia petals, stain’d the color of rust, or shit. The wee impertinent screes of two starlings up in a willow. The taut intermittency of the keys being finger’d nigh-noiselessly. Looking at a book of artist manifestos: attract’d to the Stuckists sloganeering “Against conceptualism, hedonism and the cult of the ego-artist.” Contempt for celebrity cravings. Though the declaratory medium itself rather besmirches the intent. (Thinking of the “uncreative” cons of the Conceptualists: I like what Werner Herzog says—“Minnesota Declaration” (1999)—of cinéma-vérité, how “it reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants”: “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”) I peek’d at that White House frou-frou roux with “Kenny” Goldsmith and “Billy” Collins—two wits closer in demeanor, delivery, and significance than either’d admit—and recall’d Nabokov’s Pnin at the “Cremona Women’s Club” (“Cremona—some two hundred versts west of Waindell”). All so mannerly and edifying and self-congratulatory. (“Abrupt barks of clockwork hilarity”—sign of impeccable behavior.) Nabokov:
“. . . Our next lecturer is the distinguished poet and prose writer, Miss Linda Lacefield. We all know she has written poetry, prose, and some short stories. Miss Lacefield was born in New York. Her ancestors on both sides fought on both sides in the Revolutionary War. She wrote her first poem before graduation. Many of her poems—three of them, at least—have been published in Response, A Hundred Love Lyrics by American Women. In 1922 she received the cash prize offered by—”
Frankly, between the repeating thuds of smarm and the duds of self-garnishment, I had to retreat. I prefer comrade Dadaist Aragon’s mysterious rebuttal. Between the dogged “Everything that is not me is incomprehensible” and the catty “Everything that is me is incomprehensible” he’s got the chutzpah to feign a little marvel of highly alert “not saying anything”: “Whether sought on Pacific sands or gathered in the hinterland of my own existence, the shell that I press to my ear will ring with the same voice and I’ll think it the voice of the sea and it will be but the sound of myself.” And: “In my left pocket I carry a remarkably accurate self-portrait: a watch in burnished steel. It speaks, marks time and understands none of it.”

No. 10

Like the constant lyric drone
Of a mufti’d apparatchik dying
In the sun, my home-
Grown terror is standard, poor,
An index of what bankruptcy
Is. The insect-runnel’d ash
Trees along the promenade, junk
In the street. What contingency
Makes of the heart’s blank
Reproof is no security. Out
We go mark’d by lack
Of purchase, fending off cops.

No. 11

In the copybook two cows
Shaped like boxes: ‘where Ecstasy
Is making its Cunning in.’
A miscreant series of gashes
Renders the sky’s heresiarchy of
Clouds rather too perfectly considering . . .
Constituting naughts. Concomitant zeroing in
Of the heart against chaotic
Débâcle and foundering, the two
Cows of the era’s bleak
Ravening. Empire’s a spouse made
Of concrete. Endless interviews unyielding . . .

Louis Aragon Reading a Manifesto, Paris Peace Congress, 1949

Monday, May 16, 2011


Two Lights

How sedulously the days go. Two days of diligent, ornery rain. Smeary washes of down’d petals staining the streets madder-color’d. Coop’d up reading John Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool (1950). Coddling a soft spot for the hard-boil’d. Poaching the egg cooking imagery insuccinctly out of a wise-guy unleashing of chatter-bravado here (see private detective Lew Archer stuck with a dernier cri amateur theatrics bunch in Quinto, California):
      I listened to them talk. Existentialism, they said. Henry Miller and Truman Capote and Henry Moore. André Gide and Anaïs Nin and Djuna Barnes. And sex—hard-boiled, poached, coddled, shirred, and fried easy over in sweet, fresh creamery butter. Sex solo, in duet, trio, quartet; for all-male chorus; for choir and symphony; and played on the harpsichord in three-fourths time. And Albert Schweitzer and the dignity of everything that lives.
Deft summary and juxtaposition at the service of irony. Capsule of a moment of the post-WWII “era.” Macdonald, “John Ross” or “Ross” or “John”—born Kenneth Millar, friend, oddly enough, of Eudora Welty (that factoid “push’d” me Macdonald-ward), rather surreptitiously inserts Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas into the scene:
I looked around at the rest of the wonderful people. Mrs. Galway, the amateur actress, with the professional smile clicking off and on like a white electric sign. A bald-headed man in white flannels setting off his mahogany tan, who daintily smoked a small brown cigarillo in a long green-gold holder. A fat man with a cropped gray head, in a tweed suit with padded shoulders, who turned out to be a woman when she moved her nyloned legs. A woman leaning awkwardly on the arm of the chair beside her, with a dark long tragic face and an ugly body. A youth who moved gracefully about the room, pouring drinks for everybody and smoothing the receding hair at his temples. A round little woman who tinkled on and on, whose bracelets and earrings tinkled when her voice paused.
A species of “tinkling” I rather wonder if one is not “prone to.” Sound of Jean-Paul Sartre (c. 1945, initiating Le temps moderne) in the background: “All writers of bourgeois origin have known the temptation of irresponsibility: for a century that has been the tradition in the literary career.” And Maurice Blanchot, not exactly in retort—in “Kafka et la littérature”:
To write is to engage oneself; but to write is also to disengage oneself, to commit oneself irresponsibly. To write is to call into question one’s existence, the world of values, and, to a certain extent, to condemn the good; but to write is always to try to write well, to seek out the good. And then, to write is to take on the impossibility of writing, it is, like the sky, to be silent, “to be an echo only for the mute”; but to write is to name silence, it is to write while preventing oneself from writing. . . . So is art the place of anxiety and complacency, of dissatisfaction and security. It has a name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration. And another name: happiness, eternity.
“That’s so French.” Meaning: skittish and implacable and supererogatory, a walking antonymic. Blithely contradictory “both / and”-isms. Leaving hardly any room for moral stoppages. Akin to the detective (though without the detective’s “stakes”). In a 1981 collection of occasional essays call’d Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past Macdonald, who, with “ambition split” spent a few early years in Ann Arbor “and wrote a dissertation of the psychological backgrounds of Coleridge’s criticism,” notes “I persisted in my intellectual deviance”—of writing mystery stories—against urgings by friends (“The scholars—with significant exceptions like Marshall MacLuhan and Hugh Kenner—considered my fiction writing a form of prostitution out of which they tried to wrestle my soul”). He compares the detective story “to a welder’s mask which enables both writer and reader to handle dangerously hot materials”—suggesting a commitment hardly complacent. Though, too, Macdonald writes of the rather “echo-ing the mute” qualities required by the good detective:
One is a rather selfless chameleon aspect which allows them to move on various levels of society, ranging from the campus to the slums, and fade in and out of the woodwork on demand. They are able to submerge themselves in the immediate milieu and behave according to its customs and talk the language: a little Spanish in East Los Angeles, a little jive in Watts, a little Levi-Strauss in Westwood. This is something different from the miming of the actor because it is played out in the actual world and is subject to its pressures and uncertainties. The stakes are real.
Writing stuck vacillatory in that border region between: not “irresponsibly” acting, nor doing high-stakes detective work. Though capable of a “lean” toward doing either.

No. 4

One of my two adherents
Decamp’d with the other, abrupt
Trapdoor lurch manœuvre, I sure’s
Hell didn’t see it coming.
So I flood my work
With heteroclitic meanness, turn up
My nose at a Mexican
Beer, do undue homage to
The general spike in ‘projects’
Hereabouts, schematic as a landlady.
I peer down Doth Entreat
Street, I dehisce, and commit.

No. 7

In lieu of pucker’d, pinch’d.
In place of undone, unstable.
Join’d by a hinge recalls
Tendency to yip out news
That isn’t.
So we hock
The dent’d mattress, pool what
Few piastres we can muster
And make for the disaster
Zone, up in the diabolic
Quarries of the stars. In
With the isthmus, out with
The promontory, oh that indigo . . .

Kenneth Millar, a.k.a. Ross Macdonald, 1915-1983

Friday, May 13, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop / Harryette Mullen

In a Garden

Redbuds “out.” A funny week, off-kilter, pluvial, porous. Blooming contrariety towards “all conditions . . . all minds, / As well of glib and slippery creatures as / Of grave and austere quality . . .” The poet’s talk of “the glass-fac’d flatterer” in Timon of Athens recalling the odd squib (mark’d “late 1950s-early 1960s”—adding up to little beyond a flurry of notes declaring partiality to “Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery”) of Elizabeth Bishop’s call’d “Writing poetry is an unnatural act . . .”:
My maternal grandmother had a glass eye. It fascinated me as a child, and the idea of it has fascinated me all my life. She was religious, in the Puritanical Protestant sense and didn’t believe in looking into mirrors very much. Quite often the glass eye looked heavenward, or off at an angle, while the real eye looked at you.
                        “Him whose happie birth
Taught me to live here so, that still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which is on high.”
      Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the modern problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.
Bishop quoting lines out of George Herbert’s The Temple (1633), the Herbert who “unnaturally” works a slant diagonal oblique into iterancy of a biblical verselet: “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3):
My words & thoughts do both expresse this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnall friend,
The other Hid and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapt In flesh, and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happie birth
      Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
      Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
      Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure,
      To gain at harvest an eternall Treasure.
That “double motion” surely akin to what Bishop so aptly puts as the “curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye. (Earlier, she’s noted Coleridge’s “famous sentence” out of the Biographia:“the characteristic fault of our elder poets is the reverse of that which distinguishes too many of our more recent versifiers; the one conveying the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct and natural language, the other in the most fantastic language conveying the most trivial thoughts.”) Bishop’s sense of the duality of poetry’s “looking” akin, too, to things Harryette Mullen’s got to say in Barbara Henning’s terrific Looking Up Harryette Mullen: Interviews on Sleeping with the Dictionary and Other Works (Belladonna, 2011). On Oulipo’s “systematic cataloguing and exuberant invention of textual operations and literary techniques” and its “vigorous exploration of the ludic aspects of writing”: “What I found useful . . . Oulipo’s demystification of creative process and aesthetic technique. Their idea of ‘potential literature’ liberates the writer to concentrate on the process, rather than the product, of writing . . .” And: “they make the creative process more accessible as they deflate the divine afflatus of artistic inspiration. A formal constraint . . . gives the writer a definite problem to tackle.” Mullen talks of a “use and then lose” approach to constraints:
I have found that using constraints in this way expands the possibilities for improvisation, as various textual operations may be tried at different points in the writing process. Such flexibility makes it possible to use even the most severe constraint, without fear of it being too rigid, mechanical, or stifling to the writer’s individuality. Rather, it simply gives the writer a more eclectic array of aesthetic tools.
So “a Z-shaped lipogram / calligram . . . called ‘Z-Rose’” whose “title is a pun on ‘zeroes’ for a poem made with zero letters of the word ‘rose’—
Pink pajama
in living ink
—gets “cannibalized” for a “second, unconstrained” piece, eventually becoming a stanza of Mullen’s Muse & Drudge:
O rose so drowsy in
my flower bed your pink
pajamas zig-zag into
fluent dreams of living ink
Mullen’s working the commons (recycling language, making patchwork, “natural” activity) against its own “unnatural” potential. As she says (seemingly echoing Bishop): “poetry in general is a rule-breaking activity”:
Poetry is full of rules, since poetry has its own specific guidelines, plus all the conventions of literature and rhetoric, and all the linguistic rules that apply. By breaking those rules selectively and systematically we create alternate meanings in poetry. I’m paraphrasing Michael Riffaterre in Semiotics of Poetry. When we read the poem the first time we are reading for referential meaning; but as we read, we notice what he calls “ungrammaticality.” The poem deviates from standard usage. The poet deliberately and persistently breaks linguistic rules, so that if we look at how the rules are broken they point in a certain direction. We are distracted from literal, denotative, or referential meaning and pointed towards the metaphorical, connotative, or poetic signification. We comprehend poetry by paying attention to those places where the rules are broken. Those are signals to shift from literal to non-literal interpretation.
And: “I’m less interested in randomly breaking rules, but often I’m breaking rules in a way that points to the paradoxical effects of language.” Shakespeare’s poet in Timon of Athens first assigns a kind of afflatus—flatulent-natural—(“slipp’d idly”) to an earlier lyric outburst:
                  A thing slipp’d idly from me.
Our poesy is as a gum, which oozes
From whence ’tis nourish’d: the fire i’ the flint
Shows not till it be struck; our gentle flame
Provokes itself and like the current flies
Each bound it chafes.
Chafery, the current that “flies / Each bound”: kin to the eye going “off at an angle,” unruly, ruled. (Note that Shakespearean glut of radicals: “chafe” in the sense of rubbing against an impediment coming out of Middle English chaufe-n, < Old French chaufer, chauffer to warm = Provençal calfar, Italian calefare, &c. Making the struck flint and flame that “Provokes itself” pertinent. Chafery: a forge in an iron-works. Intimations of Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”—what poesy “flies.”)

Harryette Mullen

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pound’s James

In a Garden

Periodic lost footing sense, continuing. Pound, prone to athletic one-upmanship, says of Henry James’s A Little Tour In France: “Allow me my piéton’s shrug for the man who has gone only by train.” Found reading Pound’s “Henry James,” looking for an approach to what, at a distance, appears to be unremitting fuss, a deep slurry with no salient. Evidence that Pound thinks somewhat similarly. Talking of James’s “subtly graded atmospheres”:
If one were advocate instead of critic, one would definitely claim that these atmospheres, nuances, impressions of personal tone and quality are his subject; that in these he gets certain things that almost no one else had done before him. These timbres and tonalities are his stronghold, he is ignorant of nearly everything else. It is all very well to say that modern life is largely made up of velleities, atmospheres, timbres, nuances, etc., but if people really spent as much time fussing, to the extent of the Jamesian fuss about such normal trifling, age-old affairs, as slight inclinations to adultery, slight disinclinations to marry, to refrain from marrying, etc., etc., life would scarcely be worth the bother of keeping on with it. It is also contendable that one must depict such mush in order to abolish it.
Ah, the sop vacuity of habit. Pound notes directly how “good prose arises . . . from an instinct of negation,” claiming it to be “the detailed, convincing analysis of something detestable; of something which one wants to eliminate.” Contra: “Poetry is the assertion of a positive, i.e., of desire, and endures for a longer period. Poetic satire is only an assertion of this positive, inversely, i.e., as of an opposite hatred.” Is it the reference to “velleities, atmospheres, timbres, nuances, etc.” that makes one recall the meagre un-nuanced quacks of Flarf—all that terribly thick impasto of little nothings, the slightness of verbal “inclinations”? Or is it how its idling fussiness smacks of the Jamesian leisure’d? (Pound’s complaint about Jamesian characters applicable, too: “reduced to the status of voyeurs”—James is absorb’d “in bagatelles.” The fault: “lack of the classics,” “no real series of background of mœurs du passé, only the ‘sweet dim faded lavender’ tone in opposition to modernity . . .” Marvels of ga-ga sentiment, easy and witless. Pound, speaking of such allegorical “tilting against the vacuity of the public figure” chez James: “it is pleasing that he should tilt, but the amusement partakes of the nature of seeing coconuts hurled at an aunt sally.” (See Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman’s manifesto Notes on Conceptualisms with its claim that “Conceptual writing is allegorical writing.” A coconut’s allegorical too. It’s also made of wood. See Pound’s: “Emotions to Henry James were more or less things that other people had and that one didn’t go into; at any rate not in drawing rooms.” See Conceptualism’s shiny and unperturb’d lack of any affect-tumult or intensity or vehemence whatsoever.) Notable, too, is James’s own view of New York (partially quoted by Pound, out of A Small Boy and Others), the uncanny shrug-provincialism of the imperium, early “I got mine”:
The special shade of its identity was thus that it was not conscious—really not conscious of anything in the world; or was conscious of so few possibilities at least, and these so immediate and so a matter of course, that it came almost to the same thing. That was the testimony that the slight subjects in question strike me as having borne to their surrounding medium—the fact that their unconsciousness could be so preserved. They played about in it so happily and serenely and sociably, as unembarrassed and loquacious as they were unadmonished and uninformed . . .
(Against Pound’s complaints about James: an admit’d sense that “masterwork is usually the result of the return from such excess”: “One does not know, simply does not know, the true curve until one has pushed one’s method beyond it.” The individual’s need and duty to exceed and misfire and re-collect.)

No. 3

Pluck and diminuendo. So long,
Jack. So long, sigil-maker.
Anything’s liable to bust under
Conveyance to a new rumble-
Strip. Lyric prettiness, its incongruously
Droll brinkmanship against the drone
Ferocity of the unrelenting empire.
Solfège of the launch pad.
Prong of Echinacea an un-
Emerged bumblebee’ll rout in August.
The tender’d butt of sack,
The shapeless leaking body-bag.

No. 6

Like the ‘vague, empty, rock-
Roughen’d pastures’ at night, or
The never-tacit heights of
Unbridled air a notch above
The sun, the heart is
Sounding itself out, and is
Coming un-cinch’d. And like
The slack-jaw’d idiocy of
A stock market analyst caught
Strong-arming a cashier, unheard-
Of splendors call out its
Malignity, its lineages of light.

Henry James, 1843-1916

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Zephyrus Image


Extend’d peregrinatory “out and about” period. That kind of necessary (and mostly fallow) seizure. Unremitting dawdle. “The Sufi notion of having ‘one foot in the world, one foot out of it’—this would be a condition of authenticity—a way of mitigating one’s conditioning.” That out of memoir materiel writ by Rick London, found in Alastair Johnston’s excellent Zephyrus Image: A Bibliography (Poltroon Press, 2003). ZI = linotypist and printer Holbrook Teter and artist Michael Myers, with Tom Raworth and Ed Dorn riding shotgun, among others. Anarchic wit eclecticists. See Bob Callahan (of Turtle Island) recalling:
. . . we were all print freaks. There was this kind of sense of liking the smell of print. We were never happier than when we got back in the shop and had some goofy fucking prank to pull off. We lived for that moment—when things got that clear and we had to execute the prank as perfectly as the prank called for. There was always something lawful in the gesture that followed. It had a law of its own that it obeyed and we recognized. I remember them coming over frequently at 10:30 at night with the day’s harvest. It was almost like fishermen bringing in the catch. It was normal to have Holbrook walk through the door at 11 o’clock at night and we’d be giggling for a half hour and thinking, “OK, what does this mean? What’s next?” And it created a kind of comic language all to itself that dictated one production after another. It was always like our normal activity of getting out product—what we did for real—was publish books of poetry that had no future either. It was the straight side of what we did, and this other thing was a commentary on the absurdity of that.
Something to quash the earnest careerist funk that lingers all around the ’seventies Bay Area “scene”—result of Language writing’s own fastidious history occluding other, richer histories. Herein numerous signs, dug out of the daily ephemera— “ephemera” is “everyday life”—that people did not “totally regret life.” Raworth talks of a “total feeling of open mind (with Ed, Holbrook and Michael) . . . there needed to be not even the minutest break between thought and language—and even beyond language; gesture . . . a finger movement would communicate.” And London, of Holbrook Teter’s “insistence . . . in maintaining their project as a process of discovery, not presumption”: “authenticity, by definition, cannot be predicted: If something is prefabricated, it’s not authentic.” And, that: “authenticity . . . was related to the idea of poverty; you can’t claim to possess anything, not even yourself . . .” (O’Hara’s “you can't plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open” an apt stickler here.)

Aimlessness under the glare of destiny (its lack) makes one number things. Thus (out of “The Numbering”—unrestrain’d seriality in a Poundian surrounding box):
No. 1

A yellow slicker, a cut
Against a fiduciary earning neither
Here nor there. The main
Thing is ongoingness, with its
Pre-certify’d breaks and regimens,
Or those that blow up
Out of the hard yellow
Kernels of the fatidic musts.
Money, like rhetoric, is nothing
Beyond a specie of trust.
Current and inveigler for the
Many who line its banks.

No. 2

‘If a man cannot say
What is wont in twelve
Lines—better leave it unsaid.’
Pound, sort of. The re-
Uptake inhibitor’s gone slushy, every
Inept grunt and common utterance
Is being record’d, every B
Movie’s agog with its empyrean,
Its murmur, its sweat. Empty
Yellow Valvoline containers bob up
Seriatim in waves: no more
Cudgel-wrought songs of yore.

. . .

No. 9

The insubstantial ways of unbrief’d
Causality never mark’d the snow
I march’d along, indecorous fusilier
With a blunderbuss, a red
Canvas musette bag fill’d with
Trifles. Weather, temporary sovereign of
The heights, talk’d it up
With its own plaintive commissariat
Raw tedium, made a new
Agreement, and descend’d. Balm. We
Know not what we ought.
We ought not know it.
A few jigs. How the inspecific trundling off works to gainsay my perennial attending. As James Brown’d put it: “I got to get on the good foot.”

Michael Myers, “Zephyrus Image”

Michael Myers, Cover detail of Ed Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apachería, 1974
(Drawing used subsequently for Dorn’s 2007 Way More West: New and Selected Poems)