Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Brief Leaving

Guillaume Apollinaire, c. 1910

“To make my smale trippe.” It being incipient, I bluff incontinently, and go blank. Sense of some unfettered calm in the offing. A clearing, a vent, a momentary cleansing, what a city uncannily allows the walker, in its rifer zones. (O’Hara: “isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of / strangers my most tender feelings / writhe and / bear the fruit of screaming . . .”) Julien Gracq, out of The Shape of a City:
      Apollinaire was the first poet to notice that a sudden clearing in the weather creates a microclimate that can cleanse and illuminate a nondescript street, create an unexpected flash of happiness just by showing how a façade of houses can capture the new day’s sun at ten o’clock in the morning . . .
And Gracq proceeds to quote “Zone”: “J’ai vu ce matin une jolie rue dont j’ai oublié le nom / Neuve et propre du soleil elle était le clairon” (“This morning I saw a pretty street whose name I have forgotten / Shining and clean it was the sun’s bugle” in Roger Shattuck’s rendering). To be suddenly heralded by the brassy (sun-colored) call of the crowded moment itself. Chaucer:
And bid him bring / his clarioun
That is ful dyuers / of his soun
And hyt cleped / clere laude
With which he wonde is / to hiraude
Hem that me list / preised be
Clarioun éclaircissement. Sight accommodating (providing a lodging for) sound, sound reeving (pushing its rope through the eye of) the general dawdle and complacency. Or there’s Ronald Johnson—tongue, too, a kind of rope, language a hoarding hid:
Root in the tongue itself—the language—and pith the heart for meaning, the flower its outcome. Absorption to core of things puts forth whorl to seed. There, the thrush might sing Vivaldi (for one who had ear) and Scarlatti time lark to heart-beat.

In Bunting’s A thrush in the syringa sings . . . language is integral to vowel with consonant: a consonance, a ‘sounding together’.

Hopkins:   “on ear and ear two noises too old to end”

Zukofsky:   “eyes’ blue iris splicing them”

Bunting:   “red against privet stems as a mazurka . . .”

“to thread, lithe and alert, Schoenberg’s maze.” First, thrush harpsichords syringa along its song. The melody is of motions familiar things make to bird now balancing in Bunting’s brain: death’s thrust hawkbeak, slung stone, neck twist by weasel. Thunder counterpoints random gusts of wind through branch-flex. The final chord (as Charles Ives’ instructions for playing The Fourth of July—“all the wrong notes are right.”):

“O gay thrush!”
In travel, too: “all the wrong notes . . . right.” The “motions familiar things make” pulled out of alignment, the orbitals gone sloppy, the optic nerve pinched off and needling through in microtonal poise and diminuendo, the I flummoxed by a wonder, the slunk-down cornfield fox and the city’s cataractous dash and wobble . . . In Johnson’s memorial note “L.Z.” he writes of how words (in “our first delight”) “hopscotch sequential noise.” And quotes Zukofsky (out of “Chloride of Lime and Charcoal”):
Homer’s Argos hearing
Handel’s Largo as
The car goes.

Thanks for reading. À l’année prochaine.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Notebook (Frank O’Hara, Max Beckmann, &c.)

Max Beckmann, “Großes Fischstillleben,” 1927

Rereading early O’Hara, the impersonal pieces wherein the dogmatism of hard surreal is tempered by loose and veering syntax, thinking of two pieces called “Elegy,” each—according to Allen’s notes---“Dated New York, April 1952,” and each, too(“‘Beckmann still life with fish’ written below” and “‘Klee fish still life’ written below” according to the notes), coming out of O’Hara’s looking at paintings. One:

Ecstatic and in anguish over lost days
we thrust ourselves upon all poor fish
who came drifting into our starry net
and cost them the supreme price of love

mercilessly, while the sun went out
and the moon sank into a bathos, the
music of the spheres, the deafness of
the heavens we look to for a breather.

Accept, o almighty Dead, the tribute
of our kicks, in the impassioned loosenesses
of your gravel sarongs, and accept
the multifarious timidities of the youthful

whose eating has not yet crystallized
into the compunction of the verdant skies.
Accept the salt seas flowing from our own
precious organs, the whirling notes

which may seem savage to your supine
majesties yet is the fugal diadem
of your dirty virginities. We were lovely.
Now lay for your upon sidereal simplicities.
The high anthemic exhortatory voice of “Accept the salt seas flowing from our own / precious organs . . . savage to your supine / majesties yet is the fugal diadem / of your dirty virginities” premonitory of O’Hara’s 1955 “For James Dean” (“Welcome me, if you will, / as the ambassador of a hatred / who knows its cause / and does not envy you your whim / of ending him”). Is the Max Beckmann painting the 1927 Großes Fischstillleben (for its “savagery”) or the 1944 Stillleben mit Fisch (for its “heavens”) or neither?

Max Beckmann, “Stillleben mit Fischen,” 1944

Seemingly no unmistakable cue in the writing itself. (If the painting is incidental to the writing, why O’Hara’s identifying note “written below”?) In 1955 O’Hara wrote a short review for Art News of a Max Beckmann exhibit (reprinted in the Bill Berkson-edited What’s with Modern Art?), therein noting “the grandeur and intensity with which [Beckmann] looked upon occasional subjects, landscapes, portraits, equal to that of the better appreciated mythological pieces” and suggesting that Beckmann’s sensibility is “seen to great advantage” in just such pieces, “without distraction of a literary nature.” Pertinent to O’Hara’s early pieces here, their unabashed “thrust” and “loosenesses.” (Sense of O’Hara’s unfettered lack of compunct: he isn’t to be concerned with “the supreme price of love”—literary propriety a kind of debt owed—he’s going for the “sidereal simplicities” of something audacious beyond all that, hence “the tribute / of our kicks . . .”) Two:

Salt water. and faces dying
everywhere into forms of fish.
Be unseen by the abandoned flying
machine near the jetty by the bird’s
wrist on the empty cliff crying!

From beyond the Atlantic beyond
the sand dunes’ leonine crouch
not a mast thrusts up its nose
on the sky’s pillow. The mean slouch
of fishermen wakes the falling vagabond.

And our love. it follows them
heaved like dung by tridents on
the ocean floor, our famous men!
and breaks our heart the ascension
to the sea’s ferocious surface! then

escaping never into that realm
of shining, the perfect configurations
the Bear of desire! Could we o’erwhelm
all earth with our heroes these lacerations
still, these waves, gnaw down our helm.
Avoid all grand posturing, it is for naught. Astounding to read—to accompany the rereading of early O’Hara in all its brash tenuity—O’Hara’s 1954 note regarding Klee (What’s with Modern Art?):
Paul Klee . . . is fortunate in never having done a major work; each individual thought as it comes to us trembling with wit and sensibility seems to be all of him. Almost. What a show of this variety (small pictures 1915-1940 in mediums ranging from oil to ink) makes one feel is the longing for one complex work: the pictures themselves seem to have gathered together from the ends of the earth to assemble a more complete memorial to their creator’s psyche, like dutiful children on an anniversary. When they go away again they will be individuals, but for now their family resemblance is very strong. Some of them are beautiful and amusing, others are phlegmatic and puerile. Despite the diversity of technique and whimsy in his work, Klee had only one expression: his most brilliant insights are never stunts, but they are the same in quality as the truism and the over-relaxed platitudes of the bad pictures—it is just that they know more and are not weakened by overstatement or restatement. His 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; he had made himself too accessible.
(And one thinks of O’Hara’s refusal: all the poems he called “Poem.” And of how, reading the early works, one notes the lack of “one complex work,” not, arguably, to arrive before “Easter” with its fecundity invading the very heavens: “to be pelted by the shit of the stars at last in flood / like a breath.”) Again, “Elegy (Salt water. and faces dying)” escapes its painting (“escaping never into that realm / of shining”). Is it possibly referring Klee’s 1925 “Fish Magic” or the 1926 “Around the Fish” or (again) neither? The exterior scenes (“abandoned flying / machine near the jetty”) put it beyond the usual thrall of the Stillleben. And again the starry yearnings out—“the perfect configurations / the Bear of desire!”—referring undoubtedly to Ursa Major, the Big Dipper—countering the “mean slouch” of earthly humdrum.

Paul Klee, “Around the Fish,” 1926

Paul Klee, “Fish Magic,” 1925

Friday, December 14, 2012

Notebook (Ronald Johnson, Henry David Thoreau, &c.)

Ronald Johnson, c. 1965
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Ronald Johnson, out of A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees (1964):
Wild Apples

                                                                  with ‘bow-arrow tang’

cows or birds or Johnny Appleseed
New England westward.

Whole orchards, boughs knotted
with fruits of coral & gold—to be eaten, Thoreau believed,
in the wind.

                        Whose ‘bloom’ rubs off in pockets

like wild horses
broken in, harnessed
to plow.

                Neither orchards of the east, in lichened
                walls, or west
                hedged in eucalyptus—

                bounded only by slopes of oak
                & of maple,
                the woods-apple comes sweet from the hills, both spring

                nights & autumn:
                a wildflower sharpness, an earthy


                            for hand,

                            & tint
                            of ‘apple
                                      —but wild may brindle

                            as a cow,
                            may rust like
And Thoreau, out of “Wild Apples”:
      I have seen no account of these among the “Fruits and Fruit-Trees of America,” though they are more memorable to my taste than the grafted kinds; more racy and wild American flavors do they possess, when October and November, when December and January, and perhaps February and March even, have assuaged them somewhat. An old farmer in my neighborhood, who always selects the right word, says that “they have a kind of bow-arrow tang.”
The Saunterer’s* Apple not even the saunterer can eat in the house. The palate rejects it there, as it does haws and acorns, and demands a tamed one; for there you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with. . . .
      These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season, and thus are highly seasoned, and they pierce and sting and permeate us with their spirit. They must be eaten in season, accordingly,—that is, out-of-doors.
      To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The outdoor air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed. They must be eaten in the fields . . . What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labelled, “To be eaten in the wind.”
And, under Thoreau’s rubric “Their Beauty”:
. . . some a uniform clear bright yellow, or red, or crimson, as if their spheres had regularly revolved, and enjoyed the influence of the sun on all sides alike,—some with the faintest pink blush imaginable,—some brindled with deep red streaks like a cow, or with hundreds of fine blood-red rays running regularly from the stem-dimple to the blossom-end, like meridional lines, on a straw-colored ground,—some touched with a greenish rust, like a fine lichen, here and there, with crimson blotches or eyes more or less confluent and fiery when wet,—and others gnarly, and freckled or peppered all over on the stem side with fine crimson spots on a white ground . . .
The mysteriousness of Johnson’s “rust like / rock” somewhat dispelled by Thoreau’s making that rust lichenaceous. The sense of something indubitably Hopkinsesque about Johnson’s “brindle” goes, though, un-dislodged by seeing its source in Thoreau: is it because Hopkins’s line “skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow” (“Pied Beauty”) seems to provide Johnson with the lovely “tint / of ‘apple / color’,” too (‘apple color’ unfound in Thoreau)? A final gleaning of Thoreau (found whilst looking for a trigger to Johnson’s sequence “Whose ‘bloom’ rubs off in pockets // like wild horses / broken in . . .”):
I explore amid the bare alders and the huckleberry-bushes and the withered sedge, and in the crevices of the rocks, which are full of leaves, and pry under the fallen and decaying ferns, which, with apple and alder leaves, thickly strew the ground. For I know that they lie concealed, fallen into hollows long since and covered up by the leaves of the tree itself,—a proper kind of packing. From these lurking-places, anywhere within the circumference of the tree, I draw forth the fruit, all wet and glossy, maybe nibbled by rabbits and hollowed out by crickets and perhaps with a leaf or two cemented to it (as Curzon an old manuscript from a monastery’s mouldy cellar**), but still with a rich bloom on it, and at least as ripe and well kept, if not better than those in barrels, more crisp and lively than they. If these resources fail to yield anything, I have learned to look between the bases of the suckers which spring thickly from some horizontal limb, for now and then one lodges there, or in the very midst of an alder-clump, where they are covered by leaves, safe from cows which may have smelled them out. If I am sharp-set, for I do not refuse the Blue-Pearmain, I fill my pockets on each side; and as I retrace my steps in the frosty eve, being perhaps four or five miles from home, I eat one first from this side, and then from that, to keep my balance.
Thoreau’s wry humor, a “harnessed” humor. Too, there’s Thoreau’s sense of natural intransigence: “When I see a particularly mean man carrying a load of fair and fragrant early apples to market, I seem to see a contest going on between him and his horse, on the one side, and the apples on the other, and, to my mind, the apples always gain it.” Possible source of the horse.
* Like Johnson constructing something new out of some stray “gripples” of Thoreau (see: “the custom of grippling, which may be called apple-gleaning, is, or was formerly, practiced in Herefordshire. It consists in leaving a few apples, which are called the gripples, on every tree, after the general gathering, for the boys, who go with climbing-poles and bags to collect them”), in “Walking” Thoreau offers a found (see Guy Davenport’s insistence, writing of Johnson, that “Invention . . . means finding”) definition of sauntering:
. . . which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre”— to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer—a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.
Out of the 1827 edition of the Encyclopaedia Londinensis:
To SAUNTER, v. n.   [aller à la sainte terre, from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity under pretence of going, à la sainte terre, to the holy land; or sans terre, as having no settled home.]   To wander about idly; to loiter, to linger.—The cormorant is still sauntering by the sea-side to see if he can find any of his brass cast up. L’Estrange.
** Wild apple-seeking made kin to manuscript hunting (Davenport, of Johnson: “The knowledge he likes to teach us is indeed knowledge all but lost . . .”). Curzon: Thoreau owned a copy of A Visit to Monasteries in the Levant (1849), by the English traveler, diplomat and manuscript collector Robert Curzon (1810-1873). In the “oil-cellar” of the monastery of Souriani, Curzon reports fossicking through “a small closet vaulted with stone which was filled to the depth of two feet or more with the loose leaves of . . . Syriac manuscripts:
Here I remained for some time turning over the leaves and digging into the mass of loose vellum pages; by which exertions I raised such a cloud of fine pungent dust that the monks relieved each other in holding our only candle at the door, while the dust made us sneeze incessantly as we turned over the scattered leaves of vellum. I had extracted four books, the only ones I could find which seemed to be tolerably perfect, when two monks who were struggling in the corner pulled out a great big manuscript of a brown and musty appearance and of prodigious weight, which was tied together with a cord . . .
Cartoon cormorancy.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Leonardo da Vinci, “Drawing of a Flood,” c. 1500

A god in a cloud,


Exactitude the flood.

        —Ronald Johnson, out of “BEAM 2” (ARK, 1996)

By the way its every
event is local and exact,
and by the reluctance of water
to rise and the way it climbs
its reluctance, so shall you know
flood, and by the way it compiles

the erasure of its parts
and takes to itself the local . . .

        —William Matthews, out of “Flood” (Flood, 1982)

The wild warblers are warbling in the jungle
Of life and spring and of the lustrous inundations,
Flood on flood, of our retuming sun.

        —Wallace Stevens, out of “Meditation Celestial & Terrestrial”
        (The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954)

I tender fire
opal to slop jar. Fill my feather pillow with skunk cabbage.
Forgive me
unfinished manuscripts, the burnt skillet, the burthen of my passing.
I bequeath fellatios to scarlet tanagers, fanfaronade
to my silent partner; in the flood plain, signs of the cross.
To my funeral bring spikenard. Place four scabs
on the first saltlick. A fait accompli in standard time.

        —Forrest Gander, out of “Librettos for Eros” (‘A Table Laid with Horrors’)”
        (Deeds of Utmost Kindness, 1994)

You cannot put a Fire out—
A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan—
Opon the slowest night—

You cannot fold a Flood—
And put it in a Drawer—
Because the Winds would find it out—
And tell your Cedar Floor—

        —Emily Dickinson, “583” (The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1999)

O my floating life
Do not save love
        for things
                Throw things
to the flood

by the flood
        Leave the new unbought—
                all one in the end—

        —Lorine Niedecker, out of “Paean to Place” (Collected Works, 2004)

For the most dissonant night charms us, even after death. This, after all, may
      be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone,
      violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called serpent, viola
      da gambas, aeolian harps, clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, que
      sais-je encore!

        —John Ashbery, out of “The Skaters” (Rivers and Mountains, 1966)

But from its bracket how can the tongue tell
When systematic morn shall sometime flood
The pillow—how desperate is the light
That shall not rouse, how faint the crow’s cavil

As, when stunned in that antarctic blaze,
Your head, unrocking to a pulse, already
Hollowed by air, posts a white paraphrase
Among bruised roses on the papered wall.

        —Hart Crane, out of “Paraphrase” (White Buildings, 1926)

we’ll move the deeper part
as darling compromise whose mutual dart
from deep within unneutral heart
throws a felon’s courage
among our folded limbs
to wake our rage and skim our laps
and guy the riggish night with simile
Like: gemmed engine, flood of eloquence, a pearl’s
pearl for minion; cedar, lantern, mirror, companion
of material’s sweet hour and spring (I mean
your curiosity’s work)—

        —Lisa Robertson, out of “Virgil’s Bastard Daughter’s Sing” (Debbie: An Epic, 1997)

                                              . . . a dumb eager little botch: I aim
absolutes at it so blasting, recoil and strike unnerve my
stability: (from so small a thing, what distant orbits I’ve

taken into residence) but it’s not now form against that form:
it’s motion: the renunciation of boxes, magicless: I’ll
put the speck in soak, dissolve it, or pump fluids in so dense

flooding will work it out . . .

        —A. R. Ammons, out of Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974)

                                The ballad is so mutinous without a known author. Fatherless in the same sentence what syllables will flood utterance. Warbling, warbling. Leaving no verb in their eyes
      our predestinated depths who fathoms. Strond strund stronde strand. The margin submerges phonic substance. A mother’s thread or line is ringed about with silence so poems are

        —Susan Howe, out of “Submarginalia”
        (The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, 1993)

but even that extended a little further,
                out into the desert, where
                no flash tested, no flashed!
oops! and no nail polish, yak
                                                        yak, yak, Lieut.
                no flesh to taste no flash to tusk
                no flood to flee no fleed to dlown flom the iceth loot
“par exemple!”

        —Frank O’Hara, out of “Biotherm (For Bill Berkson)”
        (The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, 1971)

                                                                                                    Last night,
Driving to the Old Orchard Inn, a flash flood. “Why would a bank,”
            my brother asked, “be crazy enough to finance a
House on the flat by a creek where the cellar is bound to flood
            whenever it rains?” Why, indeed? Crossing
Cazenovia Creek the smoothly racing water was almost up to the
            bridge, silent, smooth and creased, a tossed-
Out length of coffee-colored satin. Sadistically, I hoped to
            see a drowned Holstein floating by, a ship of
Furry flesh, its udder like a motor . . .

        —James Schuyler, out of “The Morning of the Poem”
        (The Morning of the Poem, 1980)

Mock not the flood of stars, the thing’s to be.
O Love, come now, this land turns evil slowly.
The waves bore in, soon will they bear away.

        —Ezra Pound, out of “The Needle” (Ripostes, 1912)

Soon, soon, through the dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
      And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
      And vigours of the sea.

        —W. H. Auden, out of “A Summer Night” (Collected Poems, 1976)

How is it we can’t accept this, that all trees were holy once,
That all light is altar light,
And floods us, day by day, and bids us, the air sheet lightning around us,
To sit still and say nothing,
                                                    here under the latches of Paradise?

        —Charles Wright, out of Littlefoot (2007)

                                            O Paradiso! The stream
grows leaden within him, his lilies drag. So
be it. Texts mount and complicate them-
selves, lead to further texts and those
to synopses, digests and emendations. So be it.
Until the words break loose or—sadly
hold, unshaken. Unshaken! So be it. For
the made-arch holds, the water piles up debris
against it but it is unshaken. They gather
upon the bridge and look down, unshaken.
So be it. So be it. So be it.

The sullen, leaden flood, the silken flood
—to the teeth
                            to the very eyes
                                                                (light grey)

        —William Carlos Williams, out of Paterson (1963)

Heaven is near, but not to the objects we see
It is hardly whole
Restraints, refrains
The sky is in the sun which floods society
It is not sexually innocent—its spittle forms a heaven
Life goes—by sex for shadow
The mouth is frost
It opens to recognize—too brief a loss

        —Lyn Hejinian, out of Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (1991)

Tuck up tawdry attraction for the follow broken air
      to separate yield and distort along the floor,
moving flood in a pure scheme they have but them
      selves alone flutter drain orphans in ultra wrong
unit time set . . .

        —J. H. Prynne, out of For the Monogram (1997)

Hello, floating objects. The light of the sun will give you time.
In back of every thing is a barrier. We need to flood
it all, really ram those photons.
                                                              I unhinged the
light case from my sample packs. Original orange rouge,
limitless replacement policy. A winner of the Sound Polls.

        —Clark Coolidge, out of “Combed Through the Ballardian Perspex”
        (Odes of Roba, 1991)

A point is fixed at the
intersection between the
personal and the rest

of the cosmos, and that
nexus is the source
of the flood of speech

the desperate polyphony
of conflicting meanings
empties continually into,

all signs condensed into
a single line leading
out from this dust mote size

fraction of the history of
a very tiny star into the
silence everywhere around it

        —Tom Clark, “A point is fixed . . .”
        (Sleepwalker’s Fate: New and Selected Poems, 1965-1991, 1992)

                                    These stars
are fragrant and I follow their scent.
I am their hunting hound,

predator of the marvelous.

I try the qualities of the line,

muttering   to sound it,

        divine the ratios,   render


the actual progress of syllables,

                        keep alive

        in the sequence of vowels

l’arc-en-ciel marin of the covenant

                        song makes.

                                            As if from a flower,
releasing the music that I sense
        a fragrance     a color     in mind

into a moving pivot of the flood
        that comes to me     and promising

                        makes sense.

        —Robert Duncan, out of “Dante Études (‘To Speak My Mind’)”
        (Ground Work: Before the War, In the Dark, 2006)

Caul Gate, Farewell, that hath me bound
And with an ointment laved my teethe
Until mine own voice tired, the sound
A quiet wasting summer’s breath

Babylon his flood is stilled
Babel her tower doeth tie my tongue
In the willow path there it hath swilled
My spirit, His case, and young.

        —Louis Zukofsky, out of “Michtam (‘Lese-Wiat, from Caul Gate’)”
        (Anew: Complete Shorter Poetry, 1991)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Notebook (Henry David Thoreau, Ronald Johnson, &c.)

Ronald Johnson, c. 1983
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Thoreau, out of the Journal (12 November 1851):
      Write often write upon a thousand themes—rather than long at a time—   Not trying to turn too many feeble summersets in the air—& so come down upon your head head at last—   Antaeus like be not long absent from the ground—   Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life.—   a distinct fruit & kernel itself—springing from terra-firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil & the light can sustain. Take as many bounds in a day as possible. Sentences uttered with your back to the wall. Those are the admirable bounds when the performer has lately touched the spring board. A good bound into the air from the air is a good & wholsome experience but what what shall we say to a man’s leaping off precipices in the attempt to fly—he comes down like lead . . .
The 11 November entry’d ended: “It is fatal to the writer to be too much possessed by his thought—   Things must lie a little remote to be described.” Continuing a somewhat dilatory exam of some of the sources of Ronald Johnson’s “Four Orphic Poems.” Johnson’s initial piece (out of the 1964 A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees, reprinted in the 1969 Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, a title, Guy Davenport notes—“True imagination makes up nothing; it is a way of seeing the world”—out of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Eleonora”):
‘Sentences uttered

with your back to a wall’,
as nails

but with all a lichen’s curious thrust.

The wall is one
of bone,

made by a forehead:

behind it, Bread, Fire & Writing came, of that greening-purple cabbage
(that is the brain)

glistening in its field in the first dews of morning.

between bone & page, circlings

of sap, stars, tide

hold meaning
as a nest holds speckled bird’s eggs,

& I (like
Thoreau) sit here engrossed,

‘between a microscopic & a telescopic
attempting to read

the twigged, branchy writing

of frost, spider & galactic cluster. That the syllables!

—rock & flower & animal
among the words,

make Order.

The field is newly plowed & unfenced. Its furrows

hold innumerable seeds
which have come on the wind, on wings
of birds.

What new green

will crack their burr & prickle? What words

must I corner like

to put them on a page?
In Poetry (CIV:4 / July 1964), where the piece initially appeared, three additional lines—“or the sheen off a moth’s wings, on bitter-sweet / leaves, / catches light.”—occur following “speckled bird’s eggs,” and “& I (like / Thoreau) . . .” reads “And I (like / Thoreau) . . .” The quoted lines “between a microscopic & a telescopic / world”: out of Thoreau’s Journal entry dated 19 February 1854, amid a field report out of the “Book of Nature,” its puzzling coherencies, and talk of “the mind of the universe . . . which we share” (kin to what Davenport, referring to Johnson, calls the “meticulous connoisseurship of the world as a system of harmonic advantages”). Thoreau:
      I incline to walk now in swamps & on the river & ponds—where I cannot walk in summer—   I am struck by the greenness of the green briar at this season still covering the alders &c 12 feet high & full of shining & fresh berries—   The greenness of the sassafras shoots makes a similar impression.
      The large moths ap. love the neighborhood of water—& are wont to suspend their cocoons over the edge of the meadow and river—places more or less inaccessible to men at least. I saw a button bush with what at first sight looked like the open pods of the locust or of the water asclepias attached—   They were the light ash-colored cocoons of the A. Promethea 4 or 5—with the completely withered & faded leaves wrapt around them—& so artfully and admirably secured to the twigs by fine silk wound round the leaf-stalk & the twig—which last add nothing to its strength being deciduous, but aid its deception—   They are taken at a little distance for a few curled & withered leaves left on. Though the particular twigs on which you find some coccoons may never or very rarely retain any leaves the maple for instance—there are enough leaves left on other shrubs & trees to warrant their adopting this disguise. Yet it is startling to think that the inference has in this case been drawn by some mind that as most other plants retain some leaves the walker will suspect these also to.
      Each and all such disguises & other resources remind us that not some poor worms instinct merely, as we call it, but the mind of the universe rather which we share has been intended upon each particular object—   All the wit in the world was brought to bear on each case to secure its end—   It was long ago in a full senate of all intellects determined how coccoons had best be suspended— —kindred mind with mine that admires & approves decided it so. The hips of the late rose though more or less shrivelled, are still red & handsome—   It outlasts other hips—   The sweetbriar’s have lost their color & begun to decay. The former are still very abundant & showy in perfect corymbs of a dozen or so amid the button bushes. It might be called the water-rose. The trees in the maple swamp squeak from time to time like the first fainter sounds made by the red squirrel. I have little doubt the red squirrel must lay up food since I see them so rarely abroad. On the cherry twigs you see the shining clasp of catterpillar’s eggs—   The snow not only reveals a track but sometimes hands it down—to the ice that succeeds it. The sled track which I saw in the slight snow over the ice here Feb. 2nd—though we have had many snows since—& now there is no snow at all—is still perfectly marked on the ice.
      Much study a weariness of the flesh! Ah—? But did not they intend that we should read & ponder—who covered the whole earth with alphabets—primers or bibles coarse or fine print—the very debris of the cliffs—the stivers of the rocks are covered with geographic lichens—no surface is permitted to be bare long—as by an inevitable decree we have come to times at last when our very waste paper is printed. Was not he who creates lichens the abetter of Cadmus when he invented letters, Types almost arrange themselves into words & sentences as dust arranges itself under the magnet. Print!—it is a close-hugging lichen that forms on a favorable surface—which paper offers—   The linen gets itself wrought into paper—that the song of the shirt may be printed on it—   Who placed us with eyes between a microscopic and a telescopic world?
Thoreau is quoted, too, in the final number of the “Four Orphic Poems”: “sinuosities // of meadow”* out of a 12 February 1851 Journal entry:
I find that it is an excellent walk for variety & novelty & wildness to keep round the edge of the meadow—the ice not being strong enough to bear and transparent as water—on the bare ground or snow just between the highest water mark and the present water line   A narrow, meandering walk rich in unexpected views and objects.
      The line of rubbish which marks the higher tides withered flags & reeds & twigs & cranberries is to my eyes a very agreeable & significant line which nature traces along the edge of the meadows.
      It is a strongly marked enduring natural line which in summer reminds me that the water has once stood over where I walk   Sometimes the grooved trees tell the same tale. The wrecks of the meadow fill a thousand coves and tell a thousand tales to those who can read them   Our prairial mediterranean shore. [. . .] To go up one side of the river & down the other following this way which meanders so much more than the river itself— If you cannot go on the ice—you are then gently compelled to take this course which is on the whole more beautiful—to follow the sinuosities of the meadow.
Thoreau’s “significant” following of “sinuosities” and Francis Bacon’s “labyrinth” as method. At the end of “Four Orphic Poems” Johnson writes: “For ‘where the figure is, the answer is’.” Elizabeth Sewell’s summing up of a Baconian “vision of a method of thinking, in which enfoldment and enlightenment are one and the same thing, in which there is no division between figure and meaning,” out of The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (1960). Sewell:
It is a darkness which is its own light, or, to change the Baconian figure for a moment, a labyrinth which is its own clue. In the De Sapientia Bacon says in the “Daedalus” fable, “the same man who devised the mazes of the labyrinth disclosed likewise the use of the clue,” as if figure and meaning belong by right together. One of his earliest works is called Filum Labyrinthi sive Formula Inquisitionis. His labyrinth is sometimes method . . . and sometimes nature itself: “But the universe to the eye of the human understanding is framed like a labyrinth, presenting as it does on every side so many ambiguities of way, such deceitful resemblances of objects and signs, natures so irregular in their lines, and so knotted and entangled” (preface to the Instauration). Yet where the figure is, the answer is.
* Oddly enough—or not, Kenneth Rexroth, in “Spring, Sierra Nevada,” writes:
The relationship of stone, ice and stars is systematic and enduring:
Novelty emerges after centuries, a rock spalls from the cliffs,
The glacier contracts and turns grayer,
The stream cuts new sinuosities in the meadow,
The sun moves through space and the earth with it,
The stars change places.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Notebook (Ronald Johnson, Walt Whitman, &c.)

Ronald Johnson, c. 1983
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Ronald Johnson, the second of “Four Orphic Poems” (out of the 1964 A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees):
There is an exquisite movement, like it were chaos,

but of a sweet proportion
& order:
the atoms, cells & parsley-ferns

of the universe.

Thus to Bacon it is ‘not of much use
to recount
the exact varieties of flower,

shells, dogs, hawks’,

& Palmer could make the trunk of a tree
like a mule’s knee—

& a book in which there are thirty-three moons & vast flaming suns

‘but never a cast shadow’,

& Whitman
could make lines that were irregular as waves

of the Atlantic.

Halcyon, upon transformation after

those ‘hefts
of the moving world’


we hurtle, rotate, disintegrate, re-form,
with every step.
“Four Orphic Poems” is marked “for Elizabeth Sewell.” And it is out of Sewell’s The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (1960) that Johnson plucks the Bacon:
Besides, it is not of much use to recount or to know the exact varieties of flowers, as of the iris or tulip, no, nor of shells or dogs or hawks. For these and the like are but wanton sports and freaks of nature, and almost approach to the nature of individuals. And though they involve an exquisite knowledge of the particular objects, the information which they afford to the sciences is slight and almost useless. And yet these are the things which our ordinary natural history takes delight in.
That, out of Bacon’s Descriptio Globi Intellectualis (1612), is preceded by Bacon’s complaint regarding the usual “storied-without-compunct” trappings of natural history:
I know well that a natural history is extant, large in bulk, pleasing in variety, curious often in diligence; and yet strip it of fables, antiquities, quotations and opinions of authors, empty disputes and controversies, philology and ornaments (which are more fitted for table-talk and the nodes of learned men than for the institution of philosophy), and it will shrink into small compass; so that it would seem as if people were engaged in getting up a treasure-house of eloquence, rather than a sound and faithful narrative of facts . . .
Sewell’s argument: that Bacon is rejecting the accruing vagaries of “specimen collecting” in a concerted “shift of attention from entities to process, from the static to the dynamic.” She quotes Bacon’s De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623)—“Natural History treats of the deeds and works of nature”—and adds: “Nature is an action, to be reflected by natural history which is an activity in the mind.” Thus Johnson’s Whitman (out of “Song of Myself”) ceding “mastery” to the wholly processual world:
Hefts of the moving world at innocent gambols, silently rising, freshly exuding,
Scooting obliquely high and low.

Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.

The earth by the sky staid with . . . . the daily close of their junction,
The heaved challenge from the east that moment over my head,
The mocking taunt, See then whether you shall be master!
Johnson’s lines referring to “vast flaming suns” gleaned out of a report written by A. H. Palmer, Samuel Palmer’s son, detailing pages of Palmer’s 1824 sketchbook:
From careful studies of a cheap bedroom window-curtain on its rod, and a leaf of cottager’s kale, we turn to a wild flight of spirits across the disc of a planet. There are thirty-three moons in this one volume, and vast flaming suns; but never a cast shadow from beginning to end. There are noble abbeys and palaces and, as backgrounds for figures, lofty lancet windows; but, above all these, the designer glories in ‘The Primitive Cottage’ as he calls it; nestling with its dove-cote and its mighty thatch, by brooks, in dells, and sometimes by a rumbling water-mill.
(Quoted in Geoffrey Grigson’s 1947 Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years.) Is there a slight echo of Duncan’s “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow / as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos” in Johnson’s opening? Maybe it’s simply the result of that subjunctive “were” (and, “naturally,” “chaos.”) In the fourth poem of “Four Orphic Poems,” the lovely lines:

are temporary boundaries’, the moving countries

where nothing
is seen in isolation.
Johnson’s line “Patterns are temporary boundaries” is seemingly out of the writings of the Hungarian art theorist Gyorgy Kepes in The New Landscape in Art and Science (1956): “although we see it as an entity—unified, distinct from its surroundings—a pattern in nature is a temporary boundary that both separates and connects the past and the future of the processes that trace it. . . . Patterns are the meeting points of actions. Noun and verb must be seen as one: process in pattern, pattern in process . . .”

Monday, December 10, 2012

Notebook (Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, &c.)

William Carlos Williams in Rutherford, New Jersey

The usual finicky air-popping (sense of ravening molecules banged about by unending local breezes) state: some combo of sleep-lack and desuetude (what Dr. Johnson calls, awkwardly, “cessation to be accustomed,” and quotes prognosticator Richard Allestree’s 1667 Government of the Tongue: “We see in all things how desuetude does contract and narrow our faculties, so that we can apprehend only those things wherein we are conversant . . .”), a pre-expiry feeling of neglect and relief. Two loud booms and a single high-pitched straggler: “whyn’t you leave the fuckin’ crows be?” (Jamming here in scant December, with offerings likely to go scanter: fault of the accrual of short days, the seasonal meager . . .)

Marianne Moore, who likes to make “small (or large)” machines capable of numerous and contrary doings, says Dr. Williams “nicknames . . . chains of incontrovertibly logical apparent non-sequiturs, rigmarole.” And (reviewing Williams’s Collected Poems, 1921-1931 in Poetry in 1934), combines a sense of keenly weighted “posture” with its contrary “senseless unarrangement” to grand and telling effect:
      Disliking the tawdriness of unnecessary explanation, the detracting compulsory connective, stock speech of any kind, he sets the words down, “each note secure in its own posture—singularly woven.” “The senseless unarrangement of wild things” which he imitates makes some kinds of correct writing look rather foolish . . .
“Each note secure in its own posture—singularly woven” (a line reminiscent of Sir Philip Sidney’s “not speaking . . . words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peyzing each sillable of each worde by iust proportion”) out of Williams’s “Trees” (. . . the long yellow notes / of poplars flow upward in a descending / scale, each note secure in its own / posture—singularly woven. // All voices are blent willingly / against the heaving contra-bass . . .”—lines that seem to prefigure the opening of “The Descent”: “The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned. / Memory is a kind / of accomplishment, / a sort of renewal . . .”). “The senseless unarrangement of wild things” out of “This Florida: 1924,” a piece addressed to Wallace Stevens:
But I am sick of rime—
The whole damned town

is riming up one street
and down another, yet there is
the rime of her white teeth

the rime of glasses
at my plate, the ripple rime
the rime her fingers make—

And we thought to escape rime
by imitation of the senseless
unarrangement of wild things—

the stupidest rime of all—
Against “rime” Williams poses a fine quandary of oranges—“orange / of ale and lilies // orange of topaz, orange of red hair / orange of curaçoa / orange of the Tiber // turbid, orange of the bottom / rocks in Maine rivers . . .”—seeing’s wild formal onslaught poised against rhyme’s genial denial. I think of O’Hara’s 1955 piece “Radio,” its “orange,” too, signaling an inadequacy of what “the ear can hold”:
Why do you play such dreary music
on Saturday afternoon, when tired
mortally tired I long for a little
reminder of immortal energy?
week long while I trudge fatiguingly
from desk to desk in the museum
you spill your miracles of Grieg
and Honegger on shut-ins.
                                                  Am I not
shut in too, and after a week
of work don’t I deserve Prokofieff?

Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning
to aspire to. I think it has an orange
bed in it, more than the ear can hold.
Of note: Moore’s removals. In its original, the review—called “‘Things Others Never Notice’”—begins:
      Struggle, like the compression which propels the steam engine, is a main force in William Carlos Williams. He “looks a bit like that grand old plaster cast, Lessing’s Laocoön,” Wallace Stevens says in the introduction to this book. And the breathless budding of thought from thought is one of the results and charms of the pressure configured . . .
Cut in Predilections:
Struggle is a main force in William Carlos Williams. And the breathless budding of thought from thought is one of the results and charms of the pressure configured . . .
As Moore says in the piece itself: “Likenesses here are not reminders of the object, they are likenesses.” Which wonderful phrase is—it, too—cut: “Likenesses here are not reminders of the object, they are it.” The somewhat odd Stevens quote is oddly truncated, and smartly removed. It reads, in Stevens’s Preface, amid talk of Williams’s “anti-poetic” (“a blood passion and not a passion of the inkpot”) leaning, and its burgeoning war with the “sentimental” (“Something of the unreal is necessary to fecundate the real; something of the sentimental is necessary to fecundate the anti-poetic”), thus: “So defined, Williams looks a bit like that grand old plaster cast, Lessing’s Laocoön: the realist struggling to escape from the serpents of the unreal.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Notebook (Frank O’Hara, John Cage, &c.)

Frank O’Hara, c. 1966

In the Cassandra Gillig-uploaded USA: Poetry footage of Frank O’Hara typing away at the Royal, mustering up a script for a film (to be read “against the film”—in an outtake printed in the Berkson and LeSueur-edited Homage to Frank O’Hara, O’Hara says: “I want it to be against the movie . . .” and Alfred Leslie agrees: “Yeah, I want the dialogue, the printed dialogue, should always be against what’s happening that we’re looking at, what we’re looking at in the scene . . .”)—in the footage, filmed 5 March 1966 (the final piece in O’Hara’s chronologically-arranged Collected Poems, the late stray “Little Elegy for Antonio Machado” is dated 27 March 1966, making O’Hara’s script, collected in the 1978 Selected Plays under the title “Act & Portrait,” a nigh final piece), something of a stunner: O’Hara’s lines “I wanted to lie down and be run over. It will come anyway . . .”*—O’Hara dying some few months later shortly after being hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island, 24 July 1966. The pertinent lines out of the Selected Plays’s “Act & Portrait” (with additions, counter to what O’Hara reads in the film, marked in italics):
      We walked on and on, hating each other. The air was better in bed. Now my eyes hurt, I’m coughing and out of cigarettes. I looked at them on the corner of 23rd Street and 7th Avenue. I wanted to lie down and be run over. It will come anyway. I didn’t come, but it will. Miles did. Come. DIOS BENDIGA NUESTRA CASA. We looked at the Chelsea Hotel, it seemed to be damaged like everything else. Dios bendiga nuestra casa. Two nuns walked by looking like lady wrestlers. I thought of my childhood and my dirty underwear, my socks.
The later additions making the lines less spooky, “come” made pun undermining its earlier intent, the lines now merely a momentary fancy inserted into the character John’s trials within the trio. (Leslie’s sense of the threesome—out of the outtakes: “Miles addresses himself to Dorothea. Dorothea addresses herself to John. John is always stalking about his past. He’s talked about the Catholic church, the nuns, the priests and everything else . . .”) Other changes to “Act & Portrait” (with, at the end, O’Hara’s telephone conversation providing fodder):
      It’s raining. It makes me feel sweaty like last night. I hate to feel sweaty. That’s not sex, that just amusement. Going to bed with Dorothea is like going to bed with a nun. She’s just a pal, sexually, she doesn’t feel anything about me or him, she just wants to be accommodating. We’re all generalized, like mannequins. It’s nobody’s business what people do when they’re alone. Everybody is always intruding. But it never makes any difference.
      She thinks she’s some sort of cornball Salome. I think she’d like to have my head. Her and her mother. A flashing bolt. I got on last night. On what? I’m retarded. Henry Chickenhawk.
      Guys in black leather jackets give me the creeps. Who doesn’t want to be Marlon?
And so forth. Later in “Act & Portrait”:
      There’s something about nipples that disturbs me. Sometimes they stick out, sometimes they sink in. It’s like guns. Sometimes you have the safety on, sometimes you have it off. Keep your powder dry. I wanted to go to chapel and hear my son sing some sort of cantata, but I couldn’t pull myself together. At least he’s going to a good school. But he’ll be disappointed. He may as well start early.
      Religion is very Gothic. I’m agin it. Fergit it. I get nervous enough around real living palpable pulsating smelling persons, without something coming over the horizon at me. And yet I do look up and I do see the sky. What is it? Why is it blue? Why is that truck driver driving a truck?
Hints of Ferlingetti’s lines “Women’s underwear holds things up / Men’s underwear holds things down” (“Underwear”)? Or O’Hara’s own “O the glances like nipples! and in every other wave all the we don’t desire screaming with envy” (“Jane Bathing”)?

Two selections out of the outtakes film (“Frank O’Hara: Second Edition,” made by the American Poetry Archive Film Unit of the Poetry Center, San Francisco State University). O’Hara, concerning boredom and conscientiousness (he’s just reported Dylan Thomas’s responding to “Jimmy Merrill’s play” at some “funny little theater”: “. . . afterwards, when we went to the bar, Tennessee introduced me to Dylan Thomas and he said: “Those plays are shit.” (Laughter.) And he wouldn’t come back after intermission.”):
That’s another thing that happened, that there should be more of a certain kind of thing. When John Cage had his first concerts, or not his first, but you know, there was a limited audience, and it was bored and so forth, a lot of it. But everybody went because they had to know about it, whether they were bored or they weren’t bored, they felt like it was important to know what John Cage thought, or did, or sounded like, which seems to be declining, in a certain sense. I mean, you said if everybody goes to “Marat / Sade” and everybody says the text is lousy, but it’s interesting to see the people directed on the stage, and the way they’re directed, which is nothing, that is, there’s nothing to that kind of thing. If there is no content, let’s say, and I’m not saying there isn’t any content, but I mean if the audience doesn’t get any content, then what difference does it make how much excitement you get by moving people around a stage and showing a bare ass when the guy gets out of the tub?
And, talking with USA: Poetry director Richard O. Moore about the necessity for a “total absorption in international milieu” (touting a sense of literary civility—or duty—nearly unheard of in the present “era”):
Moore:   I’ve heard a lot from John [Ashbery] and Kenneth [Koch] about French poetry, what’s your relation to that?

O’Hara:   Oh, French poetry is sort of like one’s mother, I guess. As a matter of fact, much better (laughter).

Moore:   Have you ever lived in France?

O’Hara:   No. I’ve just visited France. No, it’s all literary . . . I did, that is, I don’t think one has to eat croissants in order to understand French poetry, and also just as in America, the real ideas, at a certain point, except for Stevens and William Carlos Williams and Pound, of course, earlier, came from total absorption in international milieu. It’s impossible to be a modern person and have an idea of what your life is like unless you know French poetry, as well as certain Italian poets. I don’t think Quasimodo is very necessary but certainly Montale is and Pasolini and of course above all Ungaretti in Italy, just as you shouldn’t think you’re good if you don’t know the poems of Hölderlin or Rilke. You just can’t get by. It’s also as stupid as thinking Whitman isn’t a very great poet in the whole history of poetry. It’s impossible. (Technicians mumble.)

O’Hara:   Who did I leave out (laughter)? I forgot Shakespeare. Well, there are so many; Apollinaire is the one I would really . . .
      This poem is called “For the Chinese New Year & For Bill Berkson.” It has an epigraph from D. H. Lawrence, who is also necessary, I think, along with French poetry . . .
* Other curious points de repère: “Watch out for the Mack truck. It’s got your number on it.” (“Two Shepherds, A Novel”) and “Shall I one day be the witch who saves men’s lives by throwing self beneath a rambling truck?” (“Jane at Twelve”).

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Notebook (Lyn Hejinian, Wallace Stevens, &c.)

Édouard Manet, “Stéphane Mallarmé,” 1876

Balmy for December, and damp. Premonitory vatic exordium of pinched light in the east. Uneasy, and, frankly, bicycle-exerted, hot. Mallarmé (out of “Scribbled at the Theater”):
      There is (we’re poking at the fire) an art, the only or pure art, according to which uttering signifies producing: it shouts out its demonstrations through its practice. The instant the miracle happens, to say even that it was that and nothing else, will invalidate it: so intolerant is it of any evidence other than existing.
The unutterable ineffability of the pure unsung word itself, its boding intransigence, its sheer incipience. Repeatable maestro. I recall Marianne Moore (“Idiosyncrasy and Technique”): “Odd as it may seem that a few words of overwhelming urgency should be a mosaic of quotations, why paraphrase what for maximum impact should be quoted verbatim?” Or the perennially primordial voice “poised to incept” here (out of Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes):
I’m almost ready—here—
things come—okay
each thing must reveal itself in order
to begin and then distinguish itself
by being obdurate and endear itself
without omission so as to proliferate
without summary and secure
itself—I’m almost ready—so
as to continue and remain—
The mock-jauntiness of Hejinian’s romp here—a world seemingly proliferating and replete prior to agency—“I’m almost ready”—isn’t it akin to Williams’s fiercer reproaches to the failures of art vis-à-vis the copious and impalpable moment, the now? Spring and All (1923)—beginning, wryly, punningly, “If anything of moment results—so much the better”*:
      The reader knows himself as he was twenty years ago and he has also in mind a vision of what he would be, some day. Oh, some day! But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is. And this moment is the only thing in which I am at all interested. Ergo, who cares for anything I do?
And: “. . . nearly all writing, up to the present, if not all art, has been especially designed to keep up the barrier between sense and the vaporous fringe which distracts the attention from its agonized approaches to the moment.”

Mallarmé (“Scribbled at the Theatre”):
      Criticism, in its integrity, is not, doesn’t have, or doesn’t equal Poetry, to which it brings a noble complementary operation, unless it aims, directly and superbly, also at phenomena or at the universe: but in spite of that, perhaps because of its quality of primordial instinct placed at the heart of our billowing folds (a divine unease), it gives in to the attraction of a theater that offers a mere representation for those who can’t see the things themselves! of the play written every night in the folio of the sky, and mimed in the gestures of his passions by Man.
And a longing (“primordial instinct”) to put against that Wallace Stevens’s neologism-cut lines out of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”
The instinct for heaven had its counterpart:
The instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room,
The gay tournamonde as of a single world

In which he is and as and is are one.
For its counterpart a kind of counterpoint
Irked the wet wallows of the water-spout.

The rain kept falling loudly in the trees
And on the ground . . .
Stevens, replying (27 January 1950) to a query by Herbert Weinstock at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.:
Tournamonde is a neologism. For me it creates an image of a world in which things revolve and the word is therefore appropriate in the collocation of is and as. Curiously, this word, to which I paid considerable attention when I used it, originated, in my mind, in the word mappemonde. I then got around to tournemonde, which would be a French neologism and I then changed it arbitrarily to tournamonde. I think that the word justifies itself in the sense of conveying an immediate, even though rather vague, meaning. Mallarmé said that poetry was made of words. Yet if you found this word really offensive, I could easily change it. I can only say that I am for it.
“As and is are one.” And is it only chance machinations of the gubbinally-attuned (“. . . Is just what you say. / Have it your way . . .”) that make Hejinian, here in The Book of a Thousand Eyes sound rather Stevensesque?
When I speak it’s clear that I don’t reject
            the world. Its witnesses
Coincide with this. We all enjoy illumination
            and visibility. At the park
A shuddering infant watches the leaves, a child
            floating on an inflated dinosaur
Slowly crosses the lake—alert, submissive,
            bound. Life takes a real world.
The edge turned toward the wind is sharp, its
            opposite dissolves
Into other things—only pretending to be trying
            to get out of the way.
Stevens and Hejinian as coinciding witnesses. Worldly, though not wholly “of” it. That pertinacity of implacable reason, its flattish affect.
* Williams begins Spring and All thus:
      If anything of moment results—so much the better. And so much the more likely will it be that no one will want to see it.
      There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here . . .
The opening lines of Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes read:
                                                I’ll write
and I myself can read
to see if what I’ve written is right.
Sleep offers an excuse
                                  for substitution . . .

Monday, December 03, 2012

Jennifer Moxley’s There Are Things We Live Among (Stray Notes)

Jennifer Moxley

Read—rather tepidly—Jennifer Moxley’s newish book, There Are Things We Live Among: Essays on the Object World (Flood Editions, 2012). How square the Marx-quoting sensibility (out of “Fetish”)—
      Marx: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labor, as soon as it assumes the form of a commodity Clearly from this form itself.” In other words, when does a made thing become a fetish? The moment it becomes a commodity. Commodities are things that leave us behind, that erase the “human brain, nerves, muscles, and sense organs” that went into their making. Zombie-like, they replace social relations between men with relations between things . . .
—with the rather fussy aestheticism of something like—
      Pickle dishes, teapots, sugar tongs. These specialized pieces evoke more than particular comestibles. They evoke the ideals of an old-fashioned middle-class home. Sugar tongs imply sugar cubes, a dainty item. Pickle dishes imply that pickles were once a fine accompaniment to a meal, and remind us of the importance of “putting up” preserves of food. After all, how many times a year does one need to serve pickles in order to justify having a special dish for them? These things, like the words “respectability” and “ritual,” have a quaint, outdated feel . . .
—(out of “Red Pickle Dish”)? Is there something of the connoisseur of the useless there? (Is poetry included in that category?) Or is it the finicky language itself—“particular comestibles”—I reject? Moxley proceeds to tell a mildly humorous story of being puzzled by “some heirloom china” pieces, purportedly “nut cups”—“six little china cup-like things, two by two-and-a-half inches wide, three quarters of an inch tall . . . white on the outside, pale pink inside”—too small for nuts (“were appetites so dainty one hundred years ago?”), only to apprehend suddenly (clue provided by the adornment: an “undersea motif” of “coral climbing over scallop shells”) a use equally particular and limited and quaint: individual cups for “a spoonful or two of tartar, served elegantly alongside some flaky white fish.” Household use stratified and ossified to the nth degree. Recalling Williams’s line “The pure products of America / go crazy—”: exorbitance in the fulsomely “expert” marketplace. Formal constancy a pitch against glut and anarchy. Dissonance in the hitch. In “Fetish” Moxley puts it thus: “Perhaps the secret of the commodity’s fetish-like quality is nothing but this: a nostalgic desire in the bourgeois Romantic mind for social relations to be fixed once again . . . that it might be free of both the anxiety of longing for things and the fear of losing them.” (That is, “respectability” and “ritual”—in Robert Frost’s terms, “a momentary stay against confusion.”)

Moxley, considering clothes “that define us” (out of “The Poem’s Wardrobe”):
      I’ve always been struck by the moment in Ted Berrigan’s “Red Shift” when, about halfway through the poem, he lists three people, a boy, a girl, and a painter. Though we get a feel for all three, the only item of clothing mentioned belongs to the boy:
Not that practically a boy, serious in corduroy car coat
        eyes penetrating the winter twilight at 6th
& Bowery in 1961.
I am surprised upon rereading to discover that the color of the coat is not mentioned, because in my mind I have always imagined it as brown. But why? Because it is winter, or brown is a boyish color? In addition to the lovely alliterative run of “corduroy car coat,” Berrigan creates a slick internal rhyme between “boy” and “corduroy” (a word which, serendipitously, includes a boy’s name, enforcing the “boyness” of this character). Through the mention of this coat, a car also comes into the poem, though the boy is standing on a street corner. I imagine that, were he to get into a car, it would be a 1961 model, perhaps a Chevy Impala, with bank seats, wing tips, and an automatic-shift wand behind a steering wheel. In other words, the item of clothing not only gives us insight into who this boy is—casual, perhaps not dressed warmly enough for the season—it also evokes an entire era. An era for which “Red Shift” is an elegy.
Explicatory doo-dah. Close reading comme fantaisie-impromptu. As Berrigan himself (he of the “indefinable ample rhythmic frame”) puts it: “There’s a song, “California Dreaming”, but no, I won’t do that.” Refusing the beckoning miasma of commodity “flight” (akin to any complacent extravagance, or lyric outburst—see Marx’s commodity emerging out of “an extremely obvious, trivial thing” to become “a thing which transcends sensuousness”: “It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”) Isn’t “Red Shift” precisely an attempted denial of any finicky gussying up of the starker moment (see lines like “nothing / wrapped up, nothing buried” and “stupid permanent estrangement which is / Only our human lot & means nothing”)? It ends:
I’m only pronouns, & I am all of them, & I didn’t ask for this
        You did
I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing
        will ever change
That, and that’s that.
Alone & crowded, unhappy fate, nevertheless
        I slip softly into the air
The world’s furious song flows through my costume.
“Costume”: garb of the “indefinable.” (I think of Olson’s formula: “What does not change / is the will to change.”) Berrigan’s “Red Shift” recalling, too, O’Hara’s “Joe’s Jacket”—the “seersucker” number borrowed by O’Hara one morning of a “less than average day” after a late-night talk with Joe LeSueur “only of the immediate present and its indiscriminately hitched-to past / the feeling of life and incident pouring over the sleeping city / which seems to be bathed in an unobtrusive light which lends things / coherence and an absolute, for just that time” (“just that time” slyly undercutting that “coherence,” precursory to the final line’s percipience of endless flux and its futile cautionary accoutrements:
it is all enormity and life it has protected me and kept me here on
many occasions as a symbol does when the heart is full and risks no speech
a precaution I loathe as the pheasant loathes the season and is preserved
it will not be need, it will be just what it is and just what happens
O’Hara, too, allowing the “world’s furious song” its flow, refusing (“a precaution I loathe”) to defer to (the fetishizing of) a “thing.”