Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Blue Chair

Question: is it enough, “creating a great style and working in it with complete conviction and reckless abandon”? What if the style is inaccrochable? (Stein’s word for Hemingway’s “Up in Michigan,” something nobody’d bother to hang up against a wall.) That is, deplorable, or an eyesore, or sheer nonsense, or without human “decency.” Or dull, tedious. Or grinning ridiculously with loose emotionality, afear’d of solemnity. Terminally cute. The line is de Kooning fetching forth (in conversation with Selden Rodman) a reason for Pieter Pauwel Rubens’s “greatness.” Probably—next to Auguste Renoir—the least sufferable of all painters. (“I suffer when I sit next to Auguste Renoir’s painting ‘Bingo’ . . .” as the Ron Padgett draft reads.) In both cases—Rubens, Renoir—it’s “due” to a particular rose-pudginess, an anatomical puffiness like to make one clobber a cloud. Though: de Kooning’s dictum is a kind of Tantalus (that dog-thief): to find a hole (or a mound, a promontory, a “headland”) in current practice and worry it continuously (standing in water up to one’s neck, the fruit of one’s endeavors receding with each subsequent attempt)—that kind of magnificent worrying. The other de Kooning: “Art is the thing you cannot make.” There’s that Beckettian recalcitrance and ooze—systole and diastole—“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—constraint and blow-out . . . yes, there’s that.

Thomas Carlyle, who one day seem’d the very soil’d seat of postmodernism (see Sartor Resartus, I am instruct’d, wherein one Diogenes Teufelsdröckh—the name meaning something like “god-born devil-shit” writes about clothes)—writes, here, too, about clothes—making new words to “fit” one’s thoughts—a presumptuously impossible task, surely: “If one has thought not hitherto uttered in English books, I see nothing for it but you must use words not found there, must make words . . . With whole ragged battalions of Scott’s novel Scotch, with Irish, German, French, and even newspaper Cockney . . . storming in on us, and the whole structure of our Johnsonian English breaking up from its foundations, revolution there is visible as everywhere else.”

Whatever did Blaise Pascal mean when he report’d that “Poetry has no settled object”? So mention’d by Isaac D’Israeli in Curiosities of Literature. Akin to de Kooning’s art as “unmakable thing”? Or poetry’s mirage-hum betwixt music and image, never “settling” for either? The great flingings-off, cries of excess, jubilation versus the distill’d vigors of incision and wit? Unnnh . . .

Enough of my God-borne Devil-shit . . .

Willem de Kooning, “Seated Woman,” c. 1940

Willem de Kooning, “Pink Angels,” c. 1945

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Violi’s Overnight

Red Coil

Just what conceivable distinction is Ron Silliman, apparently in modo grosso majordomo, attempting in noting, yesterday—in a rather condescending review of Elaine Equi’s work—“all the poems ‘as book index,’ ‘as table of contents,’ ‘as menu,’ all the list poems of any kind that have been written over the past 40 years and just how very few of them really do work, even in the slightest.” Too, he calls such poems a “blot” and “a tell-tale sign of a weak poet.” The alphabet as structuring principle, that indexical “core” is, Silliman must imagine, not a “list.” (Or, differently, Silliman’s The Alphabet,—you know, the warm-up to “The Universe” with its three hundred and sixty books—may well earn the sobriquet “blot,” a minor thing, in advance of getting shunt’d off into dire “tell-tale” lands of the “weak poet.” All because of its list-like structure . . .)

Truth is, the idea that something unworkable’s inherent in “the list” is idiotic. Silliman’s own Under Albany is essentially a glossary—a listing, sentence by sentence, of the back-stories to “Albany.” Silliman’s “Zyxt” in its first form pleases itself by bringing up the dreary rear of The Poets’ Encyclopedia, Michael Andre and The Unmuzzled Ox’s late-’seventies lexicon of batty indices. The list is a mighty literary convention: biblical catalogue, geographical data, church litany, character books. Listing is a rhetorical move that allows extraordinary power to accumulate, a mode capable of turning back on itself, looking itself over, and advancing: see Whitman, see O’Hara, see Dylan, see most of the finest oratory in these States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So why the sappy denial? Why the pat animosity (coupled with a kind of faux apoplectic gee-Louise “am I as enthusiastic as I seem to be?” response to Equi’s Ripple Effect? What, put simply, is Silliman’s argument with “the aesthetics of the New York School”? (Which leaks out everywhere, strangely coupled with a kind of enamourment with the Eastern establishment—see the recent bizarre advocacy of the New York Times.)

The “original” poem “as book index” could well be Paul Violi’s “Index,” beginning:
Hudney, Sutej IX, X, XI, 7, 9, 25, 58, 60, 61, 64
      Plates   5, 10, 15
      Childhood   70, 71 . . .
and moving diligently and humorously through an artist’s life with entries like “Composes lines beginning: ‘Death, wouldst that I had died / While thou wert still a mystery.’   17” and “Bigamy, scandals, illness, admittance of being ‘easily crazed, like snow.’   128” and “Invents the collar stay   159” and “Departures, mortal premonitions, ‘I think I’m about to snow.’   176.” It is an examination of what Violi himself’s call’d—in an interview with Martin Stannard—a “stock character,” a conventional book-manufactory formal entry. Violi says “Part of the pleasure of writing is impersonation, and I see how in a lot of poems I’m impersonating a character—a radio announcer, a horse race announcer, whatever . . . it starts to become something like a poem when I insinuate myself into it . . . and the impersonation breaks down or goes in an unexpected direction.” Too, he says: “Narrative has always appealed to me, it leaves so much room for mischief.” And: “The whole impulse behind the experimental tradition is to increase the possibilities, not close them off. I keep coming across these false, simplistic dilemmas, such as, that aesthetic values are precious and ‘literary,’ an escape from reality, from political exigencies.”

Paul Violi’s newest book is Overnight (Hanging Loose, 2007), Cover the inexplicable and thrilling Francisco Goya painting titled “The Dog.” It begins with what is seemingly a stirring call for precision, and what is, en même temps, a veering off into the delights of what Violi—only semi-jocularly—calls being “ambushed / by trivial or stupefying irony”:

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we’re ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn’t bounce back,
The flat tire at journey’s outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, “See, that’s why
I don’t like to eat outside.”
Impeccable pacing, precise details (I particularly like the alignment of “air pocket” and “scratch shot”—the conceptual bump that occurs in noting how oddly they conjoin whilst appearing to “belong together”), sonic boomlets (“Veered and sneezed”), humor (“Weehawken”)—the poem’s pleasures are legion.

In Overnight Violi’s investigation into rather overlook’d forms continues unabated. Here are riddles (kin to some of the oldest Anglo-Saxon scraps, the several dozen riddles of the Exeter Book—“Ic eom wunderlicu wiht—     wraesne mine stefne, / hwilum beorce swa hund,     hwilum blaete swa gat” is how one begins—bark like a hound, bleat like a goat, &c. Violi’s riddles point to historical personages for the most part—Homer, Lao-tze, Mark Antony—though some—Newton Minnow, Raimbaut d’Orange—might get overlook’d by even the most avid bird-dog.), Too, Overnight includes unfinish’d sentences (high “writerly” text—the reader, so theory’s duly drummed into us, ’ll “participate in the construction of meaning”—“From the bloody throats of those dull-colored birds / That scream at the sun,”). Too, a George Herbertesque “picture poem” (or Apollinairean calligramme) titled “The Art of Restoration” in the form of a repair’d commemorative plate. And a brace of prose poems all titled “Acknowledgements.” Here’s one:
A month of twilights, laglight, fritterdusk. Withered plants, soggy bulbs, stubble. The Garden in February. Mold and tendrils, colorless scribbles dangling from a ripped-back carpet of matted leaves. Fresh hole in the frozen ground that looks like it was made by a pick-axe, a fang. Smeared dirt and frost, diamond slime. Paradise a child’s notion. Paradise painted one stroke, one phrase, one glimpse at a time, whatever a lightning flare reveals of it. Blunderblink. An invitation. Mr. and Mrs. Dwindle. Request. Demand. The pleasure of your company, your antics, your fervor, your moodiness, your stolid numbing small-time solemnity, your contempt, your pig-headed pride, your carelessness, your squalling self.
A whole gamut of emotional notes get play’d out there beyond humor, so that the poem ends up being lots larger than the (formal) joke of its occasion. The neologisms point to the mysterious clash of triggers, sources, back-story, all that that goes un-acknowledged in the gestatory gusto and labor of a poem.

Francisco Goya, “The Dog,” 1820-23

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Hymn to Voice

A Wall

Wyndham Lewis, in Tarr, an hymnodic catalogue of whence the need to clump up, make “the groupuscule” and other mass apparati one’s (everyone’s, to hear the beavers say it) modus operandi: “[Insert name of prefer’d Imposter here] was a crowd.—You could not say he was an individual.—He was a set. He sat there, a cultivated audience.—He had the aplomb and absence of self-consciousness of numbers, of the herd—of those who know they are not alone.
. . .
      For distinguishing feature [Re-insert name of prefer’d Imposter] possessed a distinguished absence of personality.”

Apropos, Theo Scratcher writes: “They slag off the voice, the “individual voice,” in soldierly squads they do some fine slagging off with a stomp-city herd mentality, making a ruckus of tiny hoof-dents, and bedding down in the long grass where all the others’ve bedded down, leaving droppings everywhere.”

How comprehend the way the reticular sac I find myself in bulges to contain all I drag in after myself? Tarr in the original 1918 printing—The Egoist, Ltd.—disrupts the Julian Symons narrative trot of the circa WWI mod crowd, and is, in turn, disrupt’d by the large recent biography of Willem de Kooning. A stowaway to the U.S. de Kooning. First stop: Newport News, Virginia, enough to make the Hollandais seethe with regret, all that flat sea-besmudged tidewater country in the offing, just like home. What I love is how De Kooning’s heroicism’s kept defiantly to the human-scale: he himself claiming that he want’d no canvas stretch’d larger than the reach of a man’s outstretch’d arms. (See Poe, Edgar Allan: a story read at a sitting.) Thinking about the issue of proportion and imagination: something like the Harvard “five-foot shelf” of classical knowledge versus the Google’d reaches. Too many apples on a tree ’ll result in a large yield of tawdry negligibles, a poor seeding crop. What a man can carry in the fish-pond of ’s head, and fish up out of there for a right occasion, maybe that’s an appropriate human poetickal scale. A balance untilt’d by effable daily lazy finger-reach: why d’you think it’s call’d a brainpan anyways? Putting myself in the agora of the meticulous nineteenth c. “The stumpy and practical walk of honest homeliness which mostly prevailed there . . .” (Thomas Hardy, who is nigh on to disrupting the de Kooning.)

Such is the weather a dumpy weekend accumulates, shoveling a few inches in freezing rain, lolloping downtown to disport in the usual “stores”—the used music emporium, the Friends of the Library rummage. Wiping the kitchen counter today, thinking how rarely such quotidian chores enter the faulty swinging doors of poetry, how they’d likely bang one on the ass on the way in (and out) if they did. The small pleasures of puttering, aimless, repeatable. Think of all the late de Kooning paintings, the nameless ones, “Untitled VII” (1985) or “Untitled XXIII” (1982), and how breathtakingly pure the paint looks—routine pared to its essential gestures, unequivocal, quick, most of a decade of wiping down counters. A distillate as opposed to a daub. In poetry, is a spare knowing unsparingness possible? Not the usual late work nigh-mawkish direct statement, “sentimental poop forgivable” (as John Milton might’ve put it), not that. Still the floods of particulars, particulars canny, domestic, bigger? (I see a note here about de Kooning working up—reusing—“rejected and unfinished canvases”—sanded down—in the ’eighties: “The ‘ghosts’ that remained on the smooth surface provided impulses for a new image.” The old moves, one’s own. In poetry, such ‘ghosts’ exist as one’s own porcine and snitty diction (or shitty diction); in one’s undeniable syntactic pivot, genial or not; in the way one makes the pact with the lingo, acrimoniously or gullibly or haphazardly or . . . All that is part of “voice” and isn’t something “downloadable,” isn’t something “social,” isn’t something to fizz up on a whim of a bored Sunday afternoon. It requires practice. One doesn’t “find” it—one constructs it, is construct’d by it, through repetition and reading, human-scale exchange and adventuring, and not through “out-sourcing” or pulling goop off a multinational.

Iris Barry, on Ezra Pound (who knew he was Pound because his little dog never knew what he was talking about): “His is almost a wholly original accent, the base of American mingled with a dozen assorted ‘English society’ and Cockney accents inserted in mockery, French, Spanish and Greek exclamations, strange cries and catcalls, the whole very oddly inflected, with dramatic pauses and diminuendos . . . I knew as little as a dog he might have been taking for a walk of even the sort of thing he was talking about; and, in addition, was too agitated to grasp much.”

Willem de Kooning, “Untitled XXIV” (1983)

Willem de Kooning, “Untitled VII” (1985)

Friday, February 23, 2007


A Wall

Viktor Shklovsky: “. . . the circus has no need of beauty.
        . . . As I write, I feel guilty for having used such an incomprehensible word as beauty.
        Thank God the circus has no need of beauty.
. . .
        Without difficulty there is no circus.
. . .
        The circus is all about difficulty.
        Circus difficulty is related to the general laws of breaking in composition.”

Wyndham Lewis: “The best artist is an imperfect artist.
        The PERFECT artist, in the sense of ‘artist’ par excellence, and nothing else, is the dilettante or taster.
        ‘Pure art,’ in the same way, is dilettante art: it cannot be anything else.
        It is, in fact, rather the same thing to admire EVERYTHING in Nature around you—match-boxes, print dresses, ginger-beer bottles, lamp-posts, as to admire every aesthetic manifestation—examples of all schools of art.
        Taste is dead emotion, or mentally-treated and preserved emotion . . .”

Charles Baudelaire: “Le beau est toujours bizarre. Je ne veux pas dire qu’il soit volontairement, roidement bizarre, car dans ce cas il serait monstre sorti des rails de la vie. Je dis qu’il contient toujours un peu de bizarrerie naïve, inconsciente, et que c’est cette bizarrerie qui le fait particulièrement le Beau. Renversez la proposition, et tâchez de concevoir un beau banal!”

Colloquy of stray notes. A cold sun barging in through the bank of windows. Need to make good my intent to read Wyndham Lewis and T. E. Hulme. Omnia opera. “Thomas Aquinas in cod.” (Something I read.) That finicking about that sparks the synaptic gaps, or revs the gentle cranial oscillator “behind it all.” Is Hulme being beastly to say: “Literature a method of sudden arrangement of commonplaces. The suddenness makes us forget the commonplace.” Put the sentimental lollipop next the grunt’d out expletive (recall that the root meaning of explete is to fill out, to add something merely to occupy space) and what’s there? A sentimental fuck off. A space-holder with a doily, heart-shaped. Not something one ought to’ve mistook for “literature.”

The “tall lanky fellow with a rose, in a white moonlit field” (Hulme) what’s he to do? He’s a flaw in the dominion, recalcitrant and boobish, a kick against pricks. He’s the mole in the nethermost shadow of the aphroditickal breast, the one sculpt’d of meerschaum. He’s the foaming inconstant, spume of the sea. (Recall that a good pipe is one “smoked for a year or so.”)

Thus the “state of poetry.” (Sun angling higher, thwarted entry.) “Rofe hit full roidly, rent hit in peses.” (Rough it up rudely, rend it into scraps.)

Wyndham Lewis

Augustus John, “Wyndham Lewis,” c. 1905

Thursday, February 22, 2007



Back to Toledo for the concert itself: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg off across thirty or so occupy’d chairs, even with the scarlet’d up lips, less absorbing ’n she’d been in rehearsal. Though she may’ve jack’d the Tchaikovsky up a speed-notch, if that’s conceivable. Beforehand: Benjamin Britten’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell” put me to thinking of all that ’fifties water’d down “modern” stuff with its percussive doodads punctuating woodwind noodlings of half-melodies. I’m thinking of sans-serif Helvetica type for everything, all the profile / full-face Picasso knock-offs, the Hans Arp blobs, the Giacometti-esque “wire sculptures,” the nausea story-squibs. (Funny, if I stare down into the estuarial murk out of what all that emerges, what I see is my copy of the University of Michigan student magazine Generation, issue dated 1951 or 1952, with a couple Frank O’Hara poems included. To see the full thrust of the “period style”—if by that one means the crass and cranially-adulterated remnants of twenty- to thirty-year-old “nouveautés”—one examines the student quarterlies. Even O’Hara’s work here: one’s a “Homage to Rrose Sélavy.” Another decade or so and the same style ’ll trickle-down into the high school literary “product.”)

The sensible Thomas Merton of Monk’s Pond and the Abbey of Gethsemani writing to James Laughlin: “[Robert] Lax sent me Waiting for Godot, which is very funny and I don’t see why people are running up and down asking themselves what is its message. But of course they always do, so in this case also they must.” Merton’d go in to use the public library in Louisville, reading Pound’s letters, looking for Zukofsky stuff.

How to dissect the Wyndham Lewis definition of art in the Julian Symons book. Symons is extrapolating, always a spruce-up job. Lewis’s character Tarr, in the novel Tarr claims: “Deadness is the first condition of art . . . The second is absence of soul, in the sentimental human sense. The lines and masses of the statue are its soul . . . It has no inside. This is another condition of art: to have no inside, nothing you cannot see.” Is it here that classicism and constructivism meet? (Why the Dylan “Brownsville Girl” line here pussyfoots in here I’ll never know: “The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.” Something about how the expressivist miasma of romanticism attracts precisely by such mysterious affability, no? What T. E. Hulme, in a snit, dismiss’d, suggesting the art and artists alike fly off into “the circumambient gas”?) I like the lack of inside: the Klein bottle, the Möbius strip, art as all uninterruptible surface. Druthers: that it be lively, if only acrawl with maggots, a feigning of life’s inconsistencies and eschewals. Braap.

Thomas Merton, Abbey of Gethsemeni, 1964
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Lack

A Wall

Off down into the Maumee-water’d reaches of Ohio, into Toledo, to attend a rehearsal by violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg with the Toledo Symphony, conduct’d by Guillermo Figueroa. Performing Tchaikovsky’s ripsnorter of a violin concerto. One senses with Nadja that the question of theatrics is moot, so wholly, transfiguringly immersed she is, whilst playing. Visage (la figura), mostly, though “the whole body participates in the act,” become a panoply of nuance, register, unkempt iterancy. Play’d by the music itself. It’s alarming, spell-binding, soul-squirming. As if one were laid out for inspect in the throes of writing, language singeing its way through.

To mundanity. Hawthorne’s American notebooks: “And now how narrow, scanty, and meagre, is this record of observation, compared with the immensity that was to be observed, within the bounds which I prescribed to myself. How shallow and scanty a stream of thought, too,—of distinct and expressed thought—compared with the broad tide of dim emotions, ideas, associations, which were flowing through the haunted regions of imagination, intellect, and sentiment, sometimes excited by what was around me, sometimes with no perceptible connection with them. When we see how little we can express, it is a wonder that any man ever takes up a pen a second time.”

Managed, after shooting back through the flatlands of southeastern Michigan in fog, to viddy a few pages of Makers of the New. Struck by T. S. Eliot’s claim of “finding the American literary scene between the beginning of the century and 1914 a complete blank” (Julian Symons). “Eliot said later that he could not recall the name of a single American poet writing in the period that he had read, and that there was no poet in England or America who would have been of use to a beginner in 1908.” (Eliot’s answer being the turn to the Symbolists, hence the import of Arthur Symons’s book—Laforgue, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gérard de Nerval, Mallarmé.)

Causing me to consider (idly): what’s “of use to a beginner” one hundred years later, in 2008? My mule-bone reactionary kicks in to say: whatever’s essential of the moment is likely hid beneath the temporary counterfeit. Use, though, ’s a different bait-box. No obvious answer’s coming bashingly forth probably means one of two things: my inept masking of myself as “beginner”—in the late ’sixties I would’ve piped up unabashedly with “Frank O’Hara, sir!” Or, two: like Eliot, we beginners find ourselves in a similar morass, swamp’d by mediocrity, repetition, foolish gloms of the moment. After all, Eliot had an ample Palgrave, the Golden Treasury, first publish’d in 1861. (Just as we got our ample Allen, The New American Poetry first print’d in 1960.)

Sense of a need to jiggle the paradigm. Which, by gosh and Montgomery, nearly always points to a needlesome impetigo of the spirit, no? (No answer forthcoming . . .)

Francis Turner Palgrave (1824-1897)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Four Trees

Persistent revery: Guy Davenport reading Erle Stanley Gardner and Strabo next to a fire. Della Street and the Greek geographer. (He’d claim each offer’d up a kind of anthropology.)

Carousing amongst three titles, one an oral biography of Charles Ives, one a study of Samuel “Erewhon” Butler’s paintings and photographs, one Julian Symons’s Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939. In the latter: how Harriet Monroe managed to line up a “hundred Chicagoans, each of whom pledged himself to subscribe $50 a year for five years,” in order to begin Poetry. (She’d, too, recently “received a fee of $1000” for an ode for the World Columbian Exposition, “to which . . . was added a further $5000 when the New York World jumped the gun in printing the poem, and she won a law case against the paper.”) En même temps—1909—Pound is spending $8 to print A Lume Spento in Venice. Thinking, with all that “Porkopolis” money, Poetry ’s allus a stinkin’ rich kid.

The odd parallel of Harold Monro—proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop in London, printer of the series of Georgian Poetry (1912-1922), edited by Winston Churchill personal secretary Edward Marsh, and of Pound’s Des Imagistes (1914)—that Harold Monro, and Harriet Monroe.

Butler on the beaux-arts training of the Victorian era (copying, copying, beginning with parts, and beginning with “flats,” moving to “plasters,” finally to living models—in a (smarm-tinged) letter, he says, “I commenced with curved symmetrical lines very difficult indeed to copy accurately. I then went through a course of hands and am now going through a course of feet; I have just blocked out the Venus de Medici’s toes”): “I listened to the nonsense about how I ought to study before beginning to paint, and the result was that I learned to study but not to paint.” (Akin to the Ph.D. candidates, legion, who learn to read poetry though not to write it.)

Contra Charles Ives’s “technique” (according to Bernard Herrmann, composer of music for the films Citizen Kane, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and Psycho, amongst others): “. . . he didn’t have any. I think he made up each technique for each piece. It wasn’t even a technique; it was some kind of a miasma that hit him and then he went to work on it. Ives’s music doesn’t go on in time and space. His music is a photographic replica in sound of a happening.”

Which is pure Vernon Watkins (1906-1967), Dylan Thomas’s cohort, according to notes just perused in the tail-skimmings of the (now finish’d) Iain Sinclair: “The defeat of time was integral, in his view, to the function of the poet . . . The idea of the replica and the moment which is all moments.” The Poundian “ply over ply” and “the eight ply of the heavens” in that “replica,” assuredly.

In the spirit of organizing something out of nothing: the newish Insect Poetics, edited by Eric C. Brown (University of Minnesota, 2006), full of plausible gunk and wingèd bite, mostly about the invasions of bugs into literature. Here’s a sample (about houseflies) by historian of science Charlotte Sleigh:
We were studying the life cycle of the bluebottle and had before us some of their pupae: red brown, shaped like fat cigars about of seven millimeters’ length, and segmented in appearance. Then we cut into them. I will never forget the horror as a thick, puslike yellow goop oozed out. Something struck me as profoundly wrong. I could understand how a vertebrate could grow from a homunculus embryo, but how could a fly assemble itself, life-size and ready to go, from a soup?
(The short answer is: a miasma hits it.) Sleigh talks, too, about the “cultural norms and expectations” regarding flies in Western culture, particularly “the notion, drummed into us from childhood, that flies are ‘dirty.’ Around 1910, the U.S. government scientist L. O. Howard rechristened the housefly—previously considered a friendly visitor to the home—the ‘filth fly’ or ‘typhoid fly.’” Sleigh points to a report “primarily aimed at schoolteachers,” that suggested “a mass ‘fly-killing crusade’ as a suitable object lesson for one whole day.”

The story how Guy Davenport left saucers of suger’d water out for bees, and ants.

Samuel Butler, c. 1893

Monday, February 19, 2007


A Sign

Samuel Butler: “Surely the work done by the body is, in one way, more its true life than its limbs and organization are.”

A lazy snow-glary Sunday. That longing to work without “applying oneself.” Puttering inconsistency. How the big structures get made. Ambling. Preening the selectables, pruning the savage wash. Versus:Capturing . . . If it wasn’t recorded, it didn’t happen. If you couldn’t play time back, chop it against another riff, you would never achieve fiction. And, much more important, you would have nothing to sell.” Iain Sinclair. That glare against “achievement”—there’s the thing to combat. Against the ruffians of commerce with Herculean denials making they meretricious collapsibles, flooding the market with vulgar jerry-builts.

I like how Bob Perelman writes “during one of my Stendhal effusions.” (“Notes on Memoir,” Iflife) The title of that book though: not bodacious.

So one tarries against the enjambments of time, whilst it turns like a boulevardier impatient with the setting. A retail’d bouleversement, priced slash’d to nothing, how did it go in the grands magasins in the heyday of my wastrel youth? Au troisième étage, c’est un massacre! And I’d think tomahawks, wampum, quahogs in the Belle Époque light. A body hung up with lanyards of its own skin.

So one drifts with the sun’s getting dowsed by the earth’s refusals, the room a glade of irrecoverables. Or few. How David Jones stumbles into Sinclair’s narrative, a cultivator of “masterly inactivity.” Perfect. A “puttee-coloured face”—I read it putty, lack of colonialist regimen historickals showing up in a vocab paucity. Jones’s engagement to the daughter of Eric Gill (type designer and erotomane), Petra (stone), and joining in the extended community, first at Ditchling (Sussex), later at Capel-y-ffin in Wales. In Sinclair’s back pages, notes under Jones: “A notorious breaker of things.” “I hate being out of doors.”

What I loved most in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: the “workpoints.” The several pages at the back, available post-reading, claiming status as goads to what one just read. “Landscape-tones.” “Character-squeezes.” (Exempla of the latter: “Gaston Pombal: honey-bear, fleshly opiates.” “Clea Montis: still waters of pain.”) Stray quotables: “Of poems: ‘I like the soft thudding of Alexandrines.’ (Nissim)” Related in my unscour’d brainpan to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Crack Up. A period of arguing for art’s essential unfinishedness, Jacques-Louis David’s undone portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte.

Jacques-Louis David, Le général Bonaparte, c. 1797-98

Ashbery (1972): “To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern.” Is that boyish braggadocio? Is the unfinish’d one way to thwart such talk?

Sinclair’s novel as language barrage and onslaught. All registers. With factoids for texture, with genre’d plot gizmos (obvious as oatcakes) for labeling. An unshapely mass, “poet’s novel.” Sinclair: “a folly of the worst kind, forged narratives, faked climaxes, bent history. A disservice to all concerned.” And: “The first sentence on the page and the game’s up, the story goes its own way.” Which is precisely what makes it, the Savage Landor book, “authentic.” Meaning “possessing authority.” See all the way back to the Wycliffe bible of the late fourteenth c. for it: “No goostli vndurstondyng is autentik, no but it be groundid in the text opynli.” In the text opynli. A strenuously undiddled mess.

And Henry Vaughan, poet a.k.a. “the Silurist,” twin to Thomas, philosopher and “common drunkard,” Henry figures in the story. He reported seeing in a revery, “a beautifull young man with a garland of green leafs upon his head, & an hawk upon his fist: with a quiver full of Arrows att his back, coming toward him (whistling several measures or tunes all the way) and att last lett the hawk fly att him, wch (he dreamt) got into his mouth & inward parts, & suddenly awaked in a great fear & consternation: butt possessed with such a vein, or gift of poetrie, that he left the sheep & went about the Countrey, making songs. . .” Green Man hoedown.

Iain Sinclair

Friday, February 16, 2007

Like a Dog

Leafage and Tower

Stray verbiage out of Iain Sinclair (Landor’s Tower): “I go along with Terry Eagleton when he talks about the literature of a subject people taking refuge in linguistic showmanship, neologism, farcical excess.” (Vaguely curious where. Am I a subject people? “Subject is subject to fits of literary malocclusion.” “Signifyin’.”)

Robert Frank making films with Rudolph Wurlitzer? “Who wrote Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah.”

“There was a period when Frank wanted to rough up the purity of his prints, draw closer to painting and script. Over an affectionate, rather slapdash photograph of some yellow flowers, he had written: Like a Dog. Then he photographed that.”

“Poetry is pith. Fiction is what you leave out.” Versus “. . . the writer must dig in for prose, stay in one place, find a single subject and cane it to death. Poets can afford ‘capricious migrations’.”

“These were people who liked taking photographs of themselves. Nothing happened until they recorded it.”

And the visiting American poet, braying with enthusiasms correct and common: “Did you ever feel . . . you could taste a still life by Juan Gris? Sound the flatness of a lemon? Lick an oyster till it rang like a silver bell? Godddammit, we’re eating jazz tonight . . .” And later, going off about the disparu Weldon:
Kees was saying: “I want poetry and I want pulp to deliver an equivalent resonance.” Well, that’s simply not sustainable—as an argument. Can’t be. In poetry every gesture carries an intolerable ethical burden. Pulp can never forget its origins as a service industry. Something has to give. Poetry fucks with you, pulp fucks at you.
(Errata slip: For pulp read flarf.)

Rough notes to talk about Charles Ives (1874-1954) by, among others, composer William Bolcom, singer Joan Morris, dancer Peter Sparling, pianist Kathryn Goodson, and violinist Gabriel Bolkosky.

Ives rebelling against “musical exoticism”—the import’d, the European, “culture as other.” In the Emersonian strain of self-reliance, “a holy tinkerer.” Flat out belief in the possibilities of American democracy, neither bitter, nor sentimental. (Insurance writings—Ives an immensely successful insurance man, hugely wealthy—still “standards” of the industry.) Part neither of the world of commercial music, nor of the European innovators—Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc.

Unfinish’d work (“The Universe Symphony”). Stories of Ives inviting visitors to add to it. (Similar stories of Bertolt Brecht, with scripts assembled scrap by scrap, playwright / composer as “one who invites all to collaborate.”) The “call to meeting” tradition. Direct representation.

Ives’s borrowings out of the hymnody. “No barrier between the concert hall and the street.” Juxtapositing the spiritual against “offhand violence.” Grace versus the “secular outbreak” of kids throwing rocks into a pond. (The grace of kids throwing rocks . . .)

Ives’s monetary support of the New Music Quarterly (Henry Cowell). Privately publish’d 114 Songs (1922) in an edition of two hundred. Too, the Concord Sonata and its accompanying prose writings Essays Before a Sonata printed in 1920.

Story of Ives’s rewriting the ending of ’s Second Symphony, to “blow a raspberry at the piece,” (apparently a fairly conventional piece, D major?) with a honking blast. (“a blatantly dissonant eleven note chord”).

Pianist John Kirkpatrick as heroic collector of Ives’s “scraps.” Too, he premier’d “Piano Sonata No. 2” (commonly, the Concord) in 1938. Scores sitting in a barn.

Robert Frank, c. 1975
(Photograph by Richard Avedon)

Robert Frank, “My Father's Coat” 2000
(Tate Gallery)

After my father was buried in 1976 in Zurich, my mother gave me the coat: “This is your father’s coat. It is very good, warm and not worn at all. Please take it with you to New York and wear it.” I hung up the coat in a small room in our house—with all my film cans on the window sill and an Aloe plant (needs a little water). The door is closed. I did not wear the coat for many years. As time goes by I am thinking more of my father and how I might become more like him.

On 14th Street I buy a Russian Lenin medal with shining red star. The medal looks good on the coat—it changes everything. The coat stays with the plant and film cans. When I am in New York on a cold day I wear the coat with the medal. The writing under the photograph is like sending a postcard—the medal on the coat an imaginary past; the plant is alive and waiting and growing; and I am getting old.
                                                                                                                                                —Robert Frank

Thursday, February 15, 2007


A Sign

Conversation between Out to Lunch (Ben Watson) and Frank Zappa (Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play):
OTL: Does everyone have interesting dreams?

FZ: I don’t know. I suppose to themselves they do. If you’ve ever had somebody tell you one of their dreams, it’s usually presented in a way that now you’re being given the opportunity to hear the most spectacular far-out fucking thing that anybody ever dreamed up—they’re all very proud of their dreams even if what you’re hearing is miserable.

OTL: Did you ever hear the expression ‘Jeder Mann sein eigener Fussball’?

FZ: No, never heard it.

OTL: It means, Everyone their own football.

FZ: [Laughs]

OTL: It was the name of a dada magazine that became a universal catch-phrase during the working-class revolts in Berlin at the end of the First World War.
And elsewhere Zappa saying: “I don’t join shit.” I recall friends in Ann Arbor around the hot cusp of the ’sixties-’seventies motoring up to Grand Rapids for a Zappa concert. The “air” they took made it clear to me how precisely I did not belong: my distrust / contempt of mere men made godlike. Or “son of mere men made godlike.” Some few years later I hung with a couple of Louisiana boys who stuff’d all available thin dimes into the King Sub (Ithaca, New York) pinball machine. High score of the week land’d a monster sub. Proprietress: Suzy Creamcheese.

Conversation between John Yau and Jasper Johns (The Brooklyn Rail):
Yau: On a number of occasions you have used the words “helpless” and “deliberate” to talk about art making. For example, you once said “the final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement, but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say.” Years earlier, in another statement, you said: “It was not a matter of joining a group effort, but of isolating myself from any group. I wanted to know what was helpless in my behavior—how I could behave out of necessity.” What do you consider to be examples of helpless behavior?

Johns: Those quotations suggest to me that I felt or wanted my work to have a sense of the inevitable, the unavoidable. There was an attempt to uncover or succumb to a primary motive in the process of painting. This may not be very clear—there are so many available choices or possibilities. I suppose there was an attempt to establish some sort of spiritual discipline.
(And elsewhere Zappa saying: “I don’t join shit.”) (And elsewhere, Drew Gardner noting (in reading Daniel Bouchard’s Zasterle’d Filaments) the “fiercely mundane details that are not focus-group tested”—that’s the spirit!) One didn’t commence writing out of some weak-kneed need for a greater groupuscule glomming on to one another—or, if one did, one ought to join a mummery, or a rugby scrum—so why make that a way of keeping one’s snout up and visible?

Why I should find myself in the shallow bin of sleep thinking with high industry about the Peter Gizzi piece Jordan Davis provided yesterday (out of the London Review of Books), qui sais? Here it is:

The 6 a.m. January
encaustic clouds
are built
in a waxy gray putty
whizzing by with spots
of luminous silvery
crack-o’-the-world light
coming through, an eerie
end-o’-the-world feeling
yet reassuring
like an old movie.
Do I really have to go out there?
Now a hint of muted
salmon tones breaking
a warmish band
of welcoming pinkish light.
Is it like this every morning?
My head still in the dark.
Worry, eck! But the brightening
russet-tipped cloud ballet
reminds me of something
in Pliny, yea, Pliny.
Can’t imagine opening
the door today in a toga.
Work and more,
yes, work
sends us into the draft.
Like that word encaustic though I ain’t sure how a sense of “burning in” fire fix’d paint “goes with” the general adjectival clot that is January a.m. Which gets me to the heart of my complaint, surely. Isn’t one about to choke here? Modifier city, man! (The “crack o’ the world” phrase goes all Tom Waits in my recall—isn’t there a point he all salacious gruff-horny says “the crack of dawn better be careful around me”?) I get jiggy about that word eerie. Fine example of show’s jump over tell. Somehow in my semi-sleep rabidry about the poem, the collusion of “crack o’ the world” and “end o’ the world” had me viddying the Gustave Courbet masterpiece pudenda “The Origin of the World” in the catalog of my head. Which considerably buck’d up my “reception” of the poem. I’d maintain, though, and stubbornly, that it’s a silly exercise in falsely innocent humility (“Do I really have to go out there?”) for a man in Peter Gizzi’s “jam” to write about having to get up early to go to work. (Reading’s first query: “is it believable?”)

As Kenward Elmslie says—in “Agenda Melt” in Agenda Melt (Adventures in Poetry, 2004): “Wads of whatev . . .”

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and Peter Gizzi

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


A Wall

Jaunty, “dumb” rhyme. Meaning an ear to the obvious, June, moon, spoon, spittoon constructions. Probably twenty years back I heard John Ashbery read one of ’s occasional daubs that fit the above—maybe “The Songs We Know Best” (A Wave). He call’d it (early ’eighties) a “disco poem.” That kind of mockery.
Just like a shadow in an empty room
Like a breeze that’s pointed from beyond the tomb
Just like a project of which no one tells—
Or didja really think that I was somebody else?
That kind of stylized awkwardness, clumsy artifice fraught with a kind of homey speech (that no one speaks). The kind of thing Dylan tosses off, relentless, casual, cramming lines full of too many syllables. (“Romeo, he said to Juliet, ‘You got a poor complexion. It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch!’ / Juliet said back to Romeo, ‘Why don't you just shove off if it bothers you so much.’”)

That’s the kind of thing I think about reading David Wheatley’s Mocker (The Gallery Press, 2006). See a couple of parts out of Wheatley’s “Drift”:
From Scarborough prom where donkeys roamed
I fled in a dodgem and made for home

until sparks flew and I came to grief
bumped up against Anne Brontë’s grave,

and went to ground in a B & B,
where I watched the tide and bade goodbye

with a postcard and an unpaid bill
and jumped on a trawler, drifting still.


In Bempton of the guanoed cliffs
I lived on gulls’ eggs and dry leaves,

the puffins made me a laughing stock
and heckled and pecked me off their rock

to Brid where I won you a teddy bear.
You get my drift. I was drifting far

but only in search of a tidal spate
to wash me up, washed up, at your feet.
Aping the form, reckless with the repetitions, and somehow a balance maintain’d: Wheatley’s drift and grief get express’d and the twenty-first century’s knowledge of the exhaust’d nature of the saying gets in there too. One way of avoiding shopworn or tired or ‘false’ innocence, whilst nodding in the direction of innocence itself, the original postmodern dilemma (see Umberto Eco’s terrific Postscript to The Name of the Rose: “Is it possible to say ‘It was a beautiful morning at the end of November’ without feeling like Snoopy?”)

Wheatley’s book is highly various in its pieces. I’d argue, though, that what Eco calls a “Kunstwollen, a way of operating,” animates most of its pieces. (Eco’s view of the postmodern insists it is less “period” than “manner.” One might label it a humour, like one of the medieval numbers, biles yellow and black, phlegm, blood, the postmodern.) Even in a rich arrangement like “Nostalgia,” stitching the current endless conflict to WWII, stitching animal noises to human, heraldry to the sky, John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” to the contemporary sense of futility, a mass of associations unrolled, the thing gets pinch’d for being a mockup, a repeat (“—always one man and his dog—”). It’s a prevalent (and likeable) tone:
Petrol-on-tarmac, salmon-and-blue-on-sable
evening sky where the Canada geese take flight
over the pier, a tethered goat and cabal
of roosters lifting their muezzin cries all night.

A man and his dog—always one man and his dog—
emerge from or is it fade into the mist
and walk like you the thin line of the dyke
that follows the foghorns all the way to the coast.

Two Iraq-bound squaddies rattle the pool balls
down the pub, war over who’ll buy the beer,
the worst they’ll face tonight for whom the bell tolls
the struggle to get their shout in at the bar.

Blacktoft docks bombed!, Lord Haw Haw crackled over
the airwaves six decades ago. Let more bombs
fall tonight: I give it all up, river,
jetty, me staggering from the pub, to the flames

if in return they grant me an azure-and-pink-
against-pitch-black sunset streaking the sky
behind the Ouse while the geese sleep on the wing
and one man and his dog walk lazily by.
A sense of Wheatley’s range. Fine reworkings (“after”) of the French—Baudelaire, Valéry. A spate of haiku, “Whalebone Haiku”: “Nunc est bibendum. / That’s Latin for line up those / pints and upend ’em.” And: “I’m beached on the bar, / a Whalebone whale. When it spouts / my blowhole spouts beer.” A lovely series of prose snapshots call’d “Bankside-Wincolmlee by Instamatic”:
The tipped cigar of the chimney shifts from side to side of the river, depending how far along the road you are. Keep an eye on it.
Empty yard, school of disused branch railway line. A memory of Foxrock-Boghill railway station one Sunday drive, everything covered in awnings, huge heavy white awnings. Then gone the next time. A bicycle against a wall that would seem to suggest habitation.
I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of inflecting the chimney from yet another angle, its bluntly Up-yours verticality when it comes into view, or just after. On balance the ‘Up-yours’ has it.
Elsewhere in the same poems there’s another Utrillo-meets-Lowry windowless street.” The Stevensesque “which to prefer,” the hint of Christo invading a Beckett set in those Foxrock-Boghill awnings, the literary is constantly pushing its blunt nose in here, and being gently told to piss off.

The other presence: Gaelic. Wheatley’s title poem is present’d in two languages, and points less to mocker’s alignment with ridicule, and more to a sense of mimic. To know: machair (Gaelic) refers to a fertile low-lying raised beach, a former beach after a drop in sea level:

The beach’s naked
                                            then clothed again
                                                                                        again mocha:
the waves’ kiss
                                            forever short
                                                                                        of the machair.


Idir nocht
                                            agus feistithe
                                                                                        tá an trá ina maja,
cúrach idir
                                            bán agus donn
                                                                                        ar nós mocha,
póg na dtonn
                                            gan teagmháil riamh
                                                                                        leis an machaire.

                                                                                                    Uggool / Ug Umhaill
It’s a splendidly paced poem, sonically sure (in the English—the Gaelic I gaze into whilst working my mouth in inconceivable directions), with no ascertainable mockery in its precise beach / woman alignment.

David Wheatley

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


A Sign

Random snows. Read a parcel of the Iain Sinclair (Landor’s Tower). Good deconstructings of the idiot apparati of “modern life”—and those who succumb willy-nilly to such. Here in a Wales-England bordertown (“A pleasure palace from the early days of motorway utopianism . . . reimagined as a zone of disappearances”):
Rows of telephones in hooded Perspex booths, bullet-deflecting shields modeled on the Eichmann trial. The phones were hooked a few feet from the ground, in deference to the average height of bus passengers on tour with Evans Evans of Clydach or Bevan Bevan of Ammanford. The rest of us could stoop and like it. They had no use for cellphones here. The only person I’d ever seen using one, an aluminium-suited rep, had blathered, from car park to escalator to restaurant, in the coffee queue, down the escalator, into the shop and out to the Gents. Where a disgruntled Taff nudged his elbow, causing him to drop the device, still whistling, into the blue chemical wash of the piss trough.
Sinclair’s directionless amblings (though studded with vague unidentifiable threat, paranoia, unease) akin to Shklovsky’s “plotless prose.” Inadvertently, perhaps, that is to say, amateurishly—there is a narrator who, fitfully, wants “to get a story going.” Too, though, he indemnifies ’s own drift, identifying it with what he calls “Camcorder pastoral.” “You couldn’t call it a pan. It was a Jamesian paragraph; it meandered, hesitated, swooped back on itself. Light values went wild. Here, at last, was a valid poetic for the expiring century. Intentionless narrative: flow, colour, accident.” As one character puts it: “Never embark . . . on a story for which you can provide a conclusion. Endlessness is immortality.” (So teacheth Pound. Though some of the spit-shined students, laurel-grabby, “finish” only to begin again . . .)

Sinclair seeing through the imitant uproar of modernism’s gaggle of post-begetters (he’s talking about himself, amongst others):
I left Landor in his box, crushed by an excess of Vaughans, Machens, Gills, Joneses, by maps and guides, geology, meteorology, picturesque excursions, rambles down the Wye. All of it to be digested, absorbed, fed into the Great Work. Wasn’t that the essence of the modernist contract. Multi-voiced, lyric seizures countered by drifts of unadorned fact, naked source material spliced into domesticated trivia, anecdotes, borrowings, found footage. Redundant. As much use as a whale carved from margarine, unless there is intervention by that other; unless some unpredicted element takes control, overrides the preplanned structure, tells you what you don’t know. Willed possession.
Not mattering where one begins, or ends (death’s just a good a stopping point ’s any): what’s “inadmissible” is that the owlet named Europe (or howsoever the story goes) not come to curse bloody in one’s one good ear. What’s “inadmissible” is the meretriciousness of mere antic. Clubby manufactories of the “zany”—unh unh. If, somewhere in the “process,” a god doesn’t put the spike-heel of ’s boot into the gap between one’s shoulder-blades, doesn’t push one’s right-knowledgeable phyz into the bastard lovage (an umbelliferous herb good for nothing), doesn’t invade one’s mild self-sameness with judders and wicks—nothing’ll out ’at’s not a shill elixir, made for the contemporary wibble-wobble only. And even if a god-prod comes down viperous and true, it’s only sweet hazard (“the chances are complicated by a number of arbitrary rules.”) Nobody corners a spiritual “estate.” Sinclair: “One sentence begetting another. It goes wrong from the first word. You’re always struggling to recover from that initial mistake, the accident of language.”

As John Yau (The Passionate Spectator)’s got John Ashbery saying French poet and painter Jean Hélion wrote: “I realize today that it is the abstract which is reasonable and possible. And that it is the pursuit of reality which is madness, the ideal, the impossible.” Like Guston, Hélion abandon’d the abstract for the figure.

Jean Hélion, “Grande Journalerie,” 1950

Monday, February 12, 2007

Swivel Benign

A Sign

Finish’d the Guy Davenport / James Laughlin letters. Curious to see (Davenport): “Montaigne says we are ‘dragged into old age facing backwards.’ And our youth facing forward. He was in his 50s when he wrote this. He doesn’t consider that his essays got better and better . . .” So inescapably Walter Benjamin, that Montaigne line. (Or, vice versa.) The Klee Angelus Novus of history: “an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. . . . His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.” (“On the Concept of History”)

Davenport on “repairing” the mistakes of one’s youth (readying the terrific Seven Greeks for printing):
I got up this morning with the idea that I might review all of my translations, loading the worktable with Lassere’s text of Archiloque (as he calls him), Liddell & Scott, sharpened pencils, and other tools of the trade. After a half hour of making my way through an elegy for a shipwreck, I compared my efforts with what I’d done back in 1959 or thereabouts and realized that I was setting out at 67 to undo the work of a thirty-year-old who was once capable of accounting for every grammatical construction in Sappho (Greek tutorial, Eliot House) and whose reading of Archilochos went through some ten revisions. Nabokov is reported to have said to Vera (apropos Marianne Moore’s severe revisions), “If you catch me rewriting my texts, please shoot me.”
Who’re the other revisionist-destroyers? Auden, certainly. And legion be the quashers of juvenilia. See—in “our” era—Silliman’s Moon in the 7th House (Milwaukee, Gunrunner Press, 1968) or the Watten Ted Berrigan-aping thesis-matériel (Iowa), gone missing the both. (Reception-control may turn out the one big legacy of the Language boys: see how quickly the Flarfkins sopped it up.)

Talk of the Erik Reece-writ monograph on Davenport’s paintings—A Balance of Quinces, and Queneauverie’s regarding writing:
You can’t say anything in a painting; you can only show. In writing you can do both, though writing must be completed by the imagination and visual experience of a reader. When I began scribbling fiction at age 40, I had figured out (slow learner!) that “The man got off the bus” is all you can do, and have to trust the reader on out. The fat man, the yellow bus, the day rainy and so forth, but nothing can help further. Nouns and verbs in grammatical order. With choice of diction. “The slender and dapperly dressed gentleman descended too quickly from the bus and fell against a Puerto Rican mother with an armload of groceries.”
        Drawing a man getting off a bus takes days. Describing it, three seconds. A sculptor couldn’t do it at all.
        I’m babbling.
Elsewhere Davenport says, “Animated genre paintings, my scribbles.”

Davenport’s borrowing of the Fourierian “desire as the energizer of all else” accedes to a little list (“The appentant eye of great minds is a subject of dubious propriety.”), beginning with Piet Mondriaan:
His passion . . . was for Mae West (whose only straight line was the handle of her parasol). Wittgenstein fancied Barbara Hutton. Great abstract intellects seem to relish sex goddesses. Apparently Einstein’s temperature went up in the proximity of the dumplingesque and the Willendorfian. Dante, Chaucer, and Ruskin were connoisseurs of the pubescent. Santayana liked football players and soldiers. Clarence King, the great geologist, had a secret black wife, as did Jefferson (they say).
Und so weiter.

Art / life collision. Joseph Cornell’s balletomania. Point’d for some period toward the Bolshevik-fled Russian dancer Tamara Toumanova. See box title’d A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova: Homage to the Romantic Ballet. Complete with feathers off Toumanova costumes (the two “corresponded on and off for at least two decades.”) Daughter of a czarist military officer, Toumanova claim’d she’d arrived into the world “in a boxcar.”

Joseph Cornell, “A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova (Homage to the Romantic Ballet),” 1946

Tamara Toumanova to Joseph Cornell, May 16, 1942
(Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

Drift’d off yesterday to Iain Sinclair’s baroque novel Landor’s Tower, or The Imaginary Conversations (Granta, 2001). “‘Imaginary conversation’ is shorthand for fiction.” Rather “swiveling benign” about itself, plotless, read it for the sentences, the texturing factoids: “The Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank reckoned that hands were the most important element in a portrait. ‘Always show the hands.’)” And, out of the nineteenth c. curate Francis Kilvert’s Diary: “If there is one thing more hateful that another it is being told what to admire and having objects pointed out to one with a stick.” Kilvert a fave of Ronald Johnson’s.

The Venus of Willendorf, c. 25000-20000 BCE

Friday, February 09, 2007


A Wall

Out of a newish book edited by Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry (Stanford, 2006), an anecdote about doings at the Tallman’s during the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference:
Olson’s bedroom next door to Ginsberg’s, and Olson, who talked in his sleep, awakening to Ginsberg, crouched on the floor next to his bed with a writing tablet, trying to get Olson’s words. “It’s not enough that you steal all the attention,” Olson shouted [Ginsberg had been on the front of a recent issue of Time magazine], “but now you want to steal my dreams!” And then Ginsberg, with no hint of apology, “Yes, Charles, I do want to steal them.”
So saith Ellen Tallman. (Now, of course, even our cursèd reveries go for naught, “we” just skim the reiterative dream-gunk off the flat international Google pond, and call it our “own.” Ah, the abysmal monkey-work of (and for) abysmal monkeys. No identifiable spikes on the chart means the patient is dead . . .)

The Duncan / Levertov book comes out of a 2003 symposium marking the publication of The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Other pieces by Devin Johnston, Aaron Shurin, John Felstiner, Brett Millier, and Peter O’Leary, amongst others. Most with a critical slant (as opposed to memorial).

Davenportiana. Laughlin, after recalling how, younger, he ’s “forbidden by Fitts to use terms from one art on another,” notes that “the way you ‘modulate’ your themes and ideas and quotes is like listening to Ravel or R. Strauss or Martinů.” And Davenport:
I wonder why Fitts didn’t want the terms of one art applied to another? It could be that it had become an overwrought gimmick. Whistler’s musical terms; Eliot’s; and the poets’ use of painterly terms (portrait d’une femme).
        There’s an overlap in all the arts. The poet’s images ore visual, and his meter is musical, as is his language. My fiction is a kind of drawing.
Davenport reading Delmore Schwartz’s letters to Laughlin, and noting “originality” with “a heaping measure of the poets of the time: MacNeice, Auden, Spender, even Frost. It’s curious how differences and resemblances stand out only after an epoch is over. The famous patina of “period” . . . There’s no way of getting Aesthetics out of history.” (Thus eventually “we” shall note just how similar be the works of, oh, Charles Bernstein and, uh, Billy Collins . . .) And regarding the flux and palsy of repute:
The most interesting trajectories in time are those whose initial shine goes dull in a generation (I’m thinking of Kipling, Booth Tarkington, and O. Henry), lies low, and then emerges bright and fresh.
        Both Hemingway’s tight style and D. H. Lawrence’s sloppy one are now in the attic. Neither had any sense of humor whatsoever; this tells a lot. The Terribly Serious writer is serious in relation to his age, and the eternal verities wear very different clothes from one age to the next.
Et voilà, mes earnestines (and I’m not talking about Hem).

Davenport trying (1993) to convince Laughlin to print Ronald Johnson’s “Ark (my title).” (Whether that phrase indicates D. offer’d up the title, or is simply calling it that—Johnson still uncertain to its monicker . . . Though, second thought, North Point ’d print’d ARK / The Foundations: 1-33 in 1980 . . .) Davenport says he “acted as Ronald’s info man while he was writing it.” And: “It’s kin to Supervielle in that it’s about creation. ’Sfarz I can understand it, it’s about the evolution of the eye (which Darwin thought was nature’s masterpiece) so that Nature could see itself.”

Davenport on cubism, and how it’s been “wrongheaded in the public (and criticial) mind”: “It is actually close to Ez’s ideograms: Braque trusts us to recognize a violin by a few details of its parts, just as Ez can work in a poem with a single Anglo-saxon phrase, or suggest a landscape with the wind through an olive tree. Braque was painting a particular culture (French middle class, that reads newspapers, drinks apéritifs, plays a musical instrument, and has well-ordered houses with furniture).” So returning content to paintings oft-seen only as formal jigsaws.

Laughlin noting how little Whitman he knows (“because Fitts didn’t like him and didn’t have us read him”). And saying that Basil Bunting’d told him Pound knew “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” by heart. “BB said that poem was the basic rhythm of the Propertius, and Ezra says somewhere, ‘I find myself using his rhythms.’”

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows, twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries . . .
Versus Pound:
The primitive ages sang Venus,
                                                                                the last sings of a tumult,
And I also will sing war when this matter of a girl is exhausted.
I with my beak hauled ashore would proceed in a more
                        stately manner,
My Muse is eager to instruct me in a new gamut, or
Up, up my soul, from your lowly cantilation,
                                                                                                put on a timely vigour,

Oh august Pierides! Now for a large-mouthed product.
“The Euphrates denies its protection to the Parthian
                                                                                and apologizes for Crassus,”
                                                And “It is, I think, India which now gives necks
                                                        to your triumph,”
And so forth, Augustus. “Virgin Arabia shakes in her
                                inmost dwelling.”
If any land shrink into a distant seacoast,
                                              it is a mere postponement of your domination,
And I shall follow the camp, I shall be duly celebrated,
                                                      for singing the affairs of your cavalry.
May the fates watch over my day.

Ezra Pound

Thursday, February 08, 2007


A Fence

What Guy Davenport call’d the stories he publish’d: “my ravings.” Repeatedly. That humble self-deprecatory. And insist’d he ’s no poet. Irregardless the evidence of the fine Flowers & Leaves. Sous-titre’d “Poema vel Sonata: Carmina Autumni Primaeque Veris Transformationum.” In a letter to Laughlin (1992), another way (as if we need’d one) to parcel out American poets: “What I admire in your work is the hard-edged, sharp-focus clarity: the classic virtues. A Greek coin; whereas Ashbery is a dust ball from under the bed of a sluttish housekeeper. No, to speak a better truth, what I admire is the sense. My mother used to say that somebody had “said a mouthful,” meaning the right thing in the right words. . . .” An aim nearly gone in some quarters of the poetickal republic, no? And, similarly, though wrongly (the details too fine, the mesh of reference hid plainly in the interstices too Pavel Tchelitchew), regarding ’s own “ravings”: “I’m essentially a comic-strip artist—everything obvious and boldly colored, with ZAP! And GRR-R! for dramatic pouf.

How often Laughlin harks back to nigh-forgotten Dudley Fitts, the classicist who sent him off to Pound. (“Fitts never talked about Thoreau. So I never read him.”) Laughlin, older by a dozen years or so, student to Davenport’s own autodidact’d classicism. Davenport’s lovely lessons (here, filling in for Laughlin a little about “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia,” a story included in the New Directions-published A Table of Green Fields):
Apta Julia is the Roman name for the modern Apt. The story grew out of a photograph by Bernard Faucon, who was born there. I like his peculiar work, and realized one day that his photo of a startling blue lavender field (the local industry since Roman times) shot across the family wash on the line was a pun: our word “laundry” and the French lavanderie derive from lavender. (Romans washed their togae in piss, and then sweetened them up after sun-drying with lavender.)
Davenport regarding a writing class at Duke (fellow students: William Styron and Mac Hyman (No Time for Sergeants)) and the identifiable need to fub the self-conscious (“I just goofin’ around”): “The result was that I was paralyzed for years, until I saw that if I wanted to write I would have to do it the way I wanted to, without thinking of myself as “a writer” (I still don’t).” And: “I do not write off the top of my head while foaming at the mouth, but with some care and deliberation. I don’t think I have an ego. That is, I have nothing to say for myself, or as from myself. It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch) . . . .” Both Davenport and Laughlin noting they are slow readers, “every word” readers. (Here, insert fugue-state note about the delicious reveries of slow reading, ablative reading, say—reading that extends and encompasses “the source whence an action proceeds, the cause or ideal source of an event, the instrument and agent or material sources of an action, the manner in which, and sometimes the place and time at which anything is done.” Long lazy blastema’d reading.)

One astonishment. The depth and severity of Davenport’s anger toward the Germans. He asks that Laughlin write into the contract for A Table of Green Fields a refusal of German rights. And, later, thanks him:
Thanks for humoring me in the matter of forbidding German translation. People who stuffed 182 Polish orphans into the gas chambers at Treblinka (age 4 to 15)—Janusc Korczak’s orphanage—could not possibly understand any of my stories. Rabbi Yeshua was an admirable fellow, and died a hideous death, but he did not die with 182 innocent children. At the loading into the cattle cars, the shit-brained SS explained to Korczak that as an officer and doctor he did not have to accompany the children. “I will go with my children,” he said simply.

“Even as he is addicted to the pleasure of manipulating trash into grotesque hieroglyphics, the postures available in an exchange economy disgust the poet.”

Ben Watson writing about J. H. Prynne under the title “Madness & Art.” (Arrived at through Melissa Flores-Bórquez’s review of Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (Object Permanence, 2001) at Intercapillary Space.)

Bernard Faucon, “Les étendoirs” (Series: “Évolution probable du temps”), c. 1981-84

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Spur

Coffee Cup

Poking along in the Davenport / Laughlin book, though I nearly shunt’d myself off into the lengthy spur that is Jonathan Beecher’s study of Fourier. Odd to learn that Davenport knew the medievalist Bob Kaske in St. Louis (Davenport: “those remote days when I could have WCW reads poems to a sophomore class”). Would’ve been just after serving in the Eighteenth Airborne Corps for a couple years, when Davenport taught at Washington University. Early to mid-’fifties. He’s noting Kaske’s death circa 1989.

Pulling me back to a short period (1985-ish) of inhabiting the cellar of Kaske’s North Quarry Street house in Ithaca, New York. Along with ten thousand or so poetry books—Ithaca House’s unsold inventory. After Baxter Hathaway’s death and the dissolution of the printing equipment—the old Chandler & Price letterpress, the few wonky offset machines, the paper cutter, the fonts, the string-cross’d frames that served for drying racks—and eventual ridding of the North Plain Street house. I think I lived there (chez Kaske) for free, though, if not, nearly so. I had some arrangement whereby I’d clean up the kitchen daily, and run through the house with a vacuum weekly. Not so troublesome except on the not so rare occasions when I’d roll down out of Collegetown plough’d up on vodkas and lime, and need to pitch and yaw around with the pots and pans before the Kaskes arose the next morning. (Apparently I made a better house servant though than my predecessor, a local hero named “Cocaine Katy,” who’d fill’d the cellar with misfits, runaways, whatnot.)

One pot in particular I recall: a monstrous thing that nearly cover’d all four stoveburners: how Kaske explain’d with pride its provenance off a Navy shipboard mess. The “lobster pot,” big enough to toss the critters in whole, or tied flat to planks, without crippling. Boxes of shipped-in canned turtle soup, for lunch. Kaske a huge-bellied Falstaffian figure, a mite slovenly, “couldn’t be bother’d.” (Davenport says: “the medievalist among us. He was old-fashioned in his scholarship, breath-takingly meticulous, and a man for whom the footnote was an art form.”) He had an enormous dog called “Wolf”—part German shepherd, part namesake—who’d accompany him everywhere, flopping down under the seminar table. When I took off back to school—after being “out” something like eleven years—and mention’d that I had some doubts about my ability to write a paper, Kaske said something like “Nonsense, what you’ll find, being a little older, is that now you’ll have something to say.” As if the obvious flaw in the usual university trajectory ’s that irritable lack of anything but. I never study’d with Kaske. So unformed, and contemporary-mind’d, in my schooling years, the medieval’d never come up. Oddly enough, I think David McAleavey inform’d me of Kaske’s death—he had study’d with him, though, I think I recall, remissfully, negligently, being too busy being, oh, “young and all that.”

Davenport. He loved “Calvin and Hobbes.” After the work later publish’d as The Balthus Notebook appear’d in Antaeus, Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, younger brother of Pierre Klossowski) “sent word that the writer of it was to be congratulated. ‘Encouragez cet jeune homme.’” Davenport then sixty-ish. On visiting Pound in the final tempus tacendi period: “I remember Olga saying that Ez came out of his silent snit at nights, and read to her. Sartre, Les mots, at the time. I remarked that its prose was very flaubertian, and got glared at.” And, after a quibble with a MOMA mighty regarding the omission of André Masson in the essay Davenport did for the MOMA published Art of the Forties (1991):
I suggested that my essay be made to end with, “And, in addition, I’d like to mention Masson.”
       In imitation of the little Niels Bohr’s grammar-school homework so ending. He had asked his daddy (Prof, Univ Copenhagen) to look over his report on the chemical elements. His father said he’d left out hydrogen. Whereupon little Niels added, “And, in addition, I’d like to mention hydrogen.”

Balthus, The Street, 1933

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Phalanx

A City

The bottomless ungovernable cold, reading the Davenport / Laughlin letters, mostly mid-’eighties. Davenport, about the “monstrous big story” in Apples and Pears (the one so-titled, with the subtitle “Het Erewhonisch Schetsboek: Messidor-Vendémiaire 1981”): “I was trying to be Fourier himself: using sets of ‘correspondences.’ Correspondences have a fascinating history: Jakob Boehme (from Jewish and mediaeval traditions) to Swedenborg to Fourier to Baudelaire to Joyce.” What triggers a sortie to the bookshelf—there’s where the long-sought, ill-remember’d Fourier quote must lie, is what I’m thinking, the one about relations, the one that I consider the “backbone” of metaphorical thinking, “how to write.” Erewhonisch! I find it nowhere! What I find is the Zukofsky epigraph (“A”—23): “since Eden gardens labor, For / series distributes harmonies, attraction Governs / destinies.” Which must be Fourier-quoting. Another string to unwind.

Too, in the Davenport letter (dated 24 March 1985): “Art knows things for the artist.” (Precisely!) And dumbstruck to learn that Davenport and Kenner disagreed on the matter, K., according to D., arguing D. “overdid my Grant Wood iconography [see “The Geography of the Imagination”], because Wood wasn’t aware of what I was showing. Of course he wasn’t. Monet wasn’t aware that in zeroing in on haystacks and the lilypond that he was painting the two states of French soil: the marshlands that had to be drained over a thousand years to get the rich fields in which hay grows.”

Finally, after umpteen meetings, I check the history of “logodaedaly.” (Laughlin praises a Davenport story, a “botanical pastourelle of tumescence,” with “What exquisite logodaedaly!” And I am thinking it’s got to descend out of “word” attaching itself to high-flying sun-struck “Daedalus.” And, sheepishly, got to admit I am perfectly dunderhead’d whence cometh all things Greek: oh, yes, Icarus, yes, certes. I do love how O.E.D. says, discreetly, “rare.” And how the word itself carries two “opposite and opposing” meanings—rather like “peruse”—both “cunning in words, ‘verbal legerdemain,’” and, more anciently, “a goodly shew and flourish of Words, without much matter.” Ah, logomachy!

And, Davenport trying to straighten Laughlin out about that sperm-fill’d brainpan of Ez’s:
Sperm is from brain to testicles in classical physiology. The mind was the lungs (phrenes) where the voice so obviously originates. The brain was a reservoir of oily gunk which lubricated the joints and made a solution for the seed. Ez’s theory is a wonderful mixture of Homeric anatomy and Romantic understanding of a Renaissance supposition about sperm and manliness. Newton attributed his great brain to never having lost a drop of sperm. (The folk belief was, and is, the opposite: that not expending sperm will drive you crazy.) What Gauguin and Vincent had their tearing fight over in Arles was these two theories. Vincent, a Dutch Baptist, believed that his genius depended on his chastity; Gauguin, a pagan, believed that his genius required a visit every day to the whorehouse over that pool-hall.
Which’s got me thinking about Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. (a.k.a. Muhammad “I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong” Ali) and some semi-clandestine yak with some neighborhood boy about the “issue.” No pre-fight boinking kind of thing.

And, what about Alfred Jarry’s 1902 Le surmâle? Hard to tell if Davenport is inventing or retelling—what jangled my “possible Pynchon-source” bell is the story of a French archeologist who “arrived in Tibet through a tunnel which he entered at Rejkjavik.” See the “iceland spar” search and passing through the earth’s interior in Against the Day.

François Marie Charles Fourier, 1772-1837