Wednesday, October 31, 2007



Back, barely. Up out of the plutocratic city, sneeringly. As Emerson asks of wan Nature, I demand of the imperial city: “never show you the wrong side of the tapestry? never come to look dingy & shabby? . . . you have pushed your joke a little too far.” That brash seamlessness, self-satisfying and inert like a rictus grin, wealth-confidence and big toys, an acontemplative lot.

Though, one examines the interrupt’d trajectory with bafflement: whose books be these back here, left open in the middle? Who snatch’d that poor complacent off and replaced him with what? Emerson: “You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself. . . . Everything in the universe goes by indirection. There are no straight lines.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, October 26, 2007

The End of Art

Red Maple

How the reading comes around, ouroboros-like, even in one’s most fanatic (pronounced like Edna O’Brien, “fan’tic”) and slavish unceremonious careering. Biting its tail. Meaning, just when one’s (snakily) bemoaning one’s own straying off the path, one stumps a toe up against one’s own laborious ass, hauling itself along “behind.” Reassuring one that one is either “on the right track” or dogging the cruel master of one’s own instincts. Je m’explique, to render myself intelligible.

Off running yesterday with Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, a boundless morosity ascend’d to clutter my upper reaches, there where I lodge my brain-box. Regarding my temporary abandonment of the Susan Howe story, the Stephen Collis book Through Words of Others seemingly getting its premature burial in the murderous book-duff of dufflebag, down there in the toss of reprobates. Today, up in the stacks, ferreting out the available Lax, peeking into The ABCs of Robert Lax (Stride, 1999), edited by David Miller and Nicholas Zurbrugg, a chock’d documentary of statements, interviews, reviews, photographs. Only to find therein a 1974 piece by Susan Howe out of the Archives of American Art Journal, a logjam of quotables titled “The End of Art.” (The line is out of Ad Reinhardt—“The end of art is art as art.”) The Ad Reinhardt with whom Lax attended (briefly) high school, and, later, Columbia.

Howe musters a formidable array of statements, a “frame structure,” several sides of which’d hinge collapsibly and interchangeable (modular shack) between, say, a Malevich black painting, turn’d white painting by Rodchenko, reiterated by Reinhardt (black), replicated by Ian Hamilton Finlay as a black block of typewriter type (call’d Homage to Malevich), and entangled by Lax’s long poem “Black & White” (consisting of a lexicon of four items: black, white, &, and stone). Some of the meat, as pick’d (thieved, undigested) out of the Howe sandwich. Ad Reinhardt, on stripped down (classical, stone-cut, limited) forms:
The one direction in fine or abstract art today is the painting of the same one form over and over again. The only intensity and the one perfection comes only from long and lonely routine preparation and repetition. The one originality exists only where all artists work with the same tradition and master the same convention.
The early (1920) statement of the De Stijl Manifesto:
the duality between poetry and prose
can no longer
be maintained
the duality between form and content
can no longer
be maintained
Thus for the modern writer form will
have a directly
spiritual meaning
it will not describe events
it will not describe at all
it will recreate in the word
the common meaning of
a constructive unity of form and content . . .
Signed by Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondriaan, Anthony Kok (and Robert “poetry denies its end in any descriptive act” Creeley). And Robert Lax writes to Susan Howe, honoring both (organically, humanly) “A form composed by an inner necessity with nothing so cool as a form to guide it” and
the look of the poem: i’ve always
liked the
idea of a poem or a word as a single
alone on a page

(an object of contemplation)

but i’ve done few poems in the
shapes of
pears, wings, altars, stairs, or doors
ajar (after manner of george herbert,
dylan thomas or i h finlay)

i like white space &
i like to see a vertical
column centred
sometimes verticality helps in
another way

image follows image
as frame follows frame
on a film

verticality helps the
poet withhold his
image until
(through earlier
images) the
mind is prepared
for it
Which places that “inner necessity” into a nigh-sexual “range,” no? Into the stir, Howe puts, too, a terrific statement of Pseudo Dionysius (out of Gombrich’s Symbolic Images):
The higher we rise, the more concise our language becomes, for the Intelligibles present themselves in increasingly condensed fashion. When we shall advance into the Darkness beyond Intelligible it will be no longer a matter of conciseness, for the words and thought cease altogether. When our discourse descends from the higher to the lower, its volume increases, the further we move from these heights.
Think of a distant (“high-minded,” Bird in Flight) look at Ian Hamilton Finlay’s afore-mention’d Malevich homage), its tableaux noir credence:
l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b 
l o c k b l a c k b l o c k b
l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b
l o c k b l a c k b l o c k b
l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b
l o c k b l a c k b l o c k b
l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b
l o c k b l a c k b l o c k b
l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b
l o c k b l a c k b l o c k b
l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b
l o c k b l a c k b l o c k b
l a c k b l o c k b l a c k b
Think, too, of the resultant mighty ink-splash’d shores of a zoom’d-in single k, say, something like that monstrous S that begins Ulysses. Of high import: both Finlay and Reinhardt seem to’ve reject’d humor’s fine distancing effects in favor of the pared down concentrates of classicism. (Reinhardt a cartoonist, with Lax and Merton, for Columbia’s Jester humor mag. Identifying himself as “the Great Demurrer in a Time of Great Enthusiasms,” a nay-sayer, and “lifelong admirer of Krazy Kat.” Finlay’s remark (in a letter to Lax): “I used to use humor to make a distance and keep it art but now I feel this as being an inadequate means.”)

Two things to look for (if I can ever finally clamber over the hump of my own ass blocking the trail): the summer 1966 issue of Lugano Review (Lax, Merton, Reinhardt, Finlay work, and a lengthy piece by Mike Weaver, “Concrete Poetry,” presumably the Weaver who wrote the terrific WCW book, William Carlos Williams: the American Background). And, the 1954 Eugen Gomringer piece, “From Line to Constellation.” Howe quotes it:
Restriction in the very best sense—concentration and simplification—is the very essence of poetry. In the constellation something is brought into the world. It is a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other. The constellation is an invitation.
To the initial sentence of which, frankly, I offer my mild pulchritudinous scoff. The fibers of my being prickle contemptuously at the stripped down; my prose goes ever wooly . . . Still, like my curiosity about Merton, one dives into the pure maelstrom of whatever one distrusts.

Off to the incapacious imperial city. À mercredi, à jeudi.

Ad Reinhardt, 1907-1967, Painting, 1954-8
A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless), three (more or less) dark (lightless) noncontrasting (colourless) colours, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, free-hand painted surface (glossless, textureless, non-linear, no hard edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundings—a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti-art).
—Ad Reinhardt

Thursday, October 25, 2007

“Such a loon way backwards to row!”

Red Maple

Claudio Magris (in Danube) remarking how it’s possibly “an advantage in literature to write for no one, now that wherever one goes the machine of organized culture falsely claims to represent everyone.”

Elsewhere Magris writes (more or less) of: “A decorous and useless work,” one showing “the tragedy of a worthy disciple whose undoubted . . . expertise no longer has anything new to say.” He says: “B______’s worthy disciples are tragic figures: they emerge at once for what they are, and waste away their lives in work that, however respectable, is dated from the start. The wily followers of S______ or of P______, equally able and useless, succeed in hiding the fact that they are late in the day, to pass themselves off as originals, and to avoid tragedy thanks to their philistinism.” The wily philistine unable to see the tragic figure he (or she) cuts. Or sees it all too clearly and opts for a bang-up career anyways. (It’s followers who get career-offers, that is one definition of a follower in a wily-morass’d safe “era.”) Likely the sad obverse of the decree of Ammons to keep oneself “stupid.”

Because I am a book-butterfly, a biblio-siren’d unfinicky Lepidopteran in nigh-instantaneous infatuation with, wholly enfeoff’d by, the turn of any sturdy page, enfeebled by all bookish flora, a verbivore, say, of—cut it out—because of that “irregularity,” I find myself in the middle of a joint biography of Robert Lax, Thomas Merton and one Edward Rice (founder and editor of the Catholic magazine Jubilee), a Columbia crowd that study’d under Mark Van Doren in the late ’thirties, sort of automatic pre-Beats by dint of that. Odd to think of a period when all the up-and-coming literary wags (“worthy disciples”) dogged the bumptious (or bumpsy) incalculable Joyce of Finnegans Wake, though of course that’s exactly the kind of thing smart young things “go” “for.” Witness lines out of a letter by Lax to “Maistyer Meetin” (Merton):
How lung have I help beneeps the hegelstroms of imargination the ungunned feuerbachs of deliht? My girl dancy flutes is in tune from north chaplin and tomorrow I will see her wile the clock bings in the novcent horissimus of the sun’s dumb golden eagis. What breaknecks will be eke in wop flourecent palaz, beaneggs wat fakely glowering water wool we nod wizder conuming the uncoprehestive exactimentos most lightly give my the clown of dimones at sniffs gobbage.
None of “what exsprains my dilastory hoverage” about the Merton, someone I keep curiously circling the hermitry of, or Lax for that matter, wanting to “untie the gemman’s fistiknots, Qvic and Nuancee” of? Maybe. To say nothing of Van Doren, what made him tick? That so many’d sort Columbia so unfettered and raw? (Or is it the “exspraination” of any of the high-flight “instituertions”—big gaudy flowers and the nimbl’st bees? Maybe.)

Raving, unraveling.

Mark Van Doren and Robert Lax

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Quinnehtukqut Notes

Some Trees

Went off half-cock’d yesterday morning, scribbling agon-ready “filler” (or something) au travail in order to (be able to) confront Joshua Harmon’s masterly Quinnehtukqut again in tonight’s frail semblance of night, bleary and industrious à la maison. Longing to attend to it without the onslaught of mangled time and its minion chore-mongering minutes. I finish’d reading it yesterday—ending with the rather hallucinatory final part, “Farmhouse in a Fold of Fields,” the part I’d previously took for resembling Zukofsky’s “A”-24, though Harmon’s note (I’d missed) says it “modifies the structure of John Ashbery’s poem ‘Litany,’ and . . . is intended to be read as separate but parallel narratives.” (The relationship between that Zukofsky and that Ashbery’d never occurred to me; indeed, any relation between Z. and A.’d not.) Hallucinatory in large part because of the writerly demands it makes for the reader. And damnably hard to excerpt. A woman forced by eminent domain out of her ancestral home by the damming of the Connecticut River decides to move the house up, out of the valley that’ll become Lake Francis; a woman returning after long absence to the same odd granite-outcropped environs, stuck up in the corner of New Hampshire between Maine and Québec, reviewing a high-storied difficult past. A cross-braid of stories, and hints of stories, present’d in justified prose couplets, two of time’s arrows shot one against the other. A mid-snip, for illustration:
                                                                                        She had not seen or
                                        There is a gravel pull-off, and she parks there,

spoken to him since he was one of the barefoot boys fishing from
then walks along the dam’s wide top, gazing the length of this new lake.

the River Road bridge and she was younger herself, driving the
She sees the low silhouette of a loon far out. From here, her back to the

hay rake through her father’s fields during second haying, or riding
village and her face to the forested east, the lake, even at midday, seems

north to First Lake where, in hunting season, she swept rooms and
more wild to her than any of the others ever did—there are no camps

made beds at Comp Otter. But in the weeks and months after the
along its shoreline, no fishermen nosing their canoes through its shallows

storm, when the state’s surveyors and engineers had determined a
or paddling across it. Only dark trees ring the mute waters. When the

need for a dam to control the headwaters of the Connecticut, and
dam was finished, she read in the newspaper that, at the ribbon-cutting

when the talk of Miss Abbott’s defiance had spread through the
the governor’s speech—before a gathering of villagers, two hydroelectric

town, he had stopped her after services at the Methodist church
plant owners from the lower Connecticut, and newspapermen—was

one Sunday. Beneath the brim of the crushed felt hat he had pulled
interrupted by applause only when he acknowledged the desire of many

on once outside, his eyes met hers only briefly before turning to-
of those assembled to reverse the order of the words Murphy Dam.

ward the ground; in his bearded face she could still see signs of the
The grainy photograph that accompanied that story showed only the

boy she remembered. Come out to my farm around sugaring time,
front of the dam, a thin trickle of water down its face, and not the

he told her, and though she had not spoken to him again during
deserted valley beyond. Now, looking over the lake’s unbroken surface

the winter, she’d asked Mr Blood to drive her there three months
she cannot believe that the waters have risen so swiftly, that a decade’s

time could swallow this valley.
(The other connect suddenly made: to some of Robert Altman’s films—I’m thinking particularly of Nashville, that stupendous, mad, stupefying voice-over jumble, everybody yammering out details of a story, and of course there’s a little “noise” in the signal—though what’s gain’d is depth, a heft to the weave, a super-saturate now.)

The considerable formal moves of Quinnehtukqut’d seem mere gimmickry though if Harmon’s sentences weren’t so sharply-chisel’d and austerely right. In the tenuous unacquaint’d disjunct of a father (just return’d up out of the WWI trenches of France) and daughter in the woods, the girl now off working for a man who’d “set the hills on fire if he thought he could charge people to come see the flames,” one reads a terribly fierce and tight sentence like “May branches still bare cast dark lace”—that emphatic chop of the father’s underthrottle of distaste and anger—and sees how exact Harmon’s language can be. Or observant. Witness a mother-daughter kitchen talk, how deftly Harmon gets down the knowing ease and confidences:
He had been a tall man. You don’t want a man you must always look in the eye, her mother had once said in the kitchen at the lodge. Dough spread wide under her hands which heeled it back into a ball. Flour ringed the board. Her mother swiped her cheek with the knob of a bent wrist. Would you pull this back, her mother asked, puffing air up from cornered lips, and Martha reached to replace the loose hair behind her mother’s ear.
Utterly convinced by a small thing like that “knob of a bent wrist.”

The novel’s stories arrive piecemeal, floating in and out of time, shreds and tatters of cloud-stories. The story of the man who brings an “immense leatherbound dictionary” with him to the woods, “teaching himself new words or pressing the tip of his pocketknife against the pages to cut out . . . whatever words he didn’t want to know the meaning of, or else wanted to forget.” The story of the man who goes missing for days and is found “sitting alone by Smith Brook under a lean-to of branches and heaped leaves and spruce boughs. His shirt, ripped into rags, was scattered across the ground, and his bare arms and shoulders were scratched and muddied . . . he did not appear drunk or disoriented or confused.” Irregardless of the taut sense of place, finely render’d, Harmon sees out, again in that abrupt exchange, conversation (and the unspoken talk of memory) made plain with the merest markers:
Show me what’s changed in the woods. They’re the same woods, she answered. Boston is no different than here, her mother had once told her. You bring yourself with you wherever you go. But you’ll see that only when you’ve been. How would you know? Martha said. You’ve never been there. No, but I’ve been enough different places to know. The sky above you will be the same blue.
And, too, a terrific recognition of how what is “no story, only one moment among countless others” is what stays with one, is fiercest, most undeniably there, a lyric moment in a novel of lyric moments:
Through the smeared glass she watched a boy and girl little older than she step into the muddy street, arms linked, both bareheaded so that their hair fell dripping against their foreheads. They walked through puddles, the hem of the girl’s dress dark and heavy, the boy’s boots dull, and passed just before the window she watched them through, though neither noticed her there, the glass between them cloudy from her breath. Water poured from a drain spout, slapping the earth outside the door, Mud splashed up.

So long, Kitaj.

R. B. Kitaj, 1932-2007, “If Not, Not,” 1975-6

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Slick, Languishing

Leaf Against Leaf

Yellow slicker soak’d, and water leaking through the chafe-spots in the rain pants. Bicycling in, a cold downpour, light careening off everything, visible shiny cataracts of light. Caught amongst impulses, think of the stutter-step bobbing squirrel mid-road, to finish the dash, or retreat to the verge. To relate the night’s reading adventures—knowing my limit’d morning limn’ll do it unjustly, or wait, keeping it snug and untouch’d for a fulsome recovery plus tard. (Chancing intervening unforeseen propulsions of new word-hoards, interrupts, rakish intruders, &c.) (Left with no rank weedy overrun to turn my wan attendants to mulching, no nothing to clobber the din of nothingness with—except my own complacent self, ugh.)

And, if not to look back, why not jump about in rascally fulvescent (weaselly) interloper style, sniff the edges of the upcoming. Susan Howe: “Marginal. Belonging to the brink or margent. / / The brink or brim of anything from telepathy to poetry.” Isn’t that a narrow range? Isn’t poetry merely a word-channel’d ablate telepathy, a means of one’s removal “elsewhere”? See the human studies manuals: “The communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense.” Got it, maestro. “Looke / How many bludy letters beyn writen in this buke, / Small margente her is.”

The difficulty / exacerbation of course with such lazy fisticuffs with emptiness, with the sparks marking the “margentes” of the thorny abyss: showy substancelessness, that stink. Phyllis Webb: “We disappear in the musk of her coming.” (Here’s where the upcoming emerges, poking up its radical snout. Investigating Phyllis Webb, prepping to read Stephen Collis’s Phyllis Webb and the Common Good: Poetry / Anarchy / Abstraction (Talonbooks, 2007). Webb’s line offsetting the tiny stanza: “Hieratic sounds emerge / from the Priestess of / Motion / a new alphabet / gasps for air.” And, just when one is fretting the continual desire to be consumed, sopped up by a larger water, smear’d into the landscape, auditory or visual, mountainous or oceanic, Emerson ducks out from behind ’s usual “nihilizing”—for Lord knows he hides not in nature, certes, he barely randoms therein, if not to “locate” (measure) the human, see the 1848 Paris note: “The Boulevarts have lost their fine trees, which were all cut down for barricades in February. At the end of a year we shall take account, & see if the Revolution was worth the trees.”—to remind one how “The arts languish now because all their scope is exhibition; when they originated it was to serve the gods. . . . Now they are mere flourishes. Is it strange they perish?”

End of a mere flourish, suck’d up this morning by no god.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Danube Notes

Some Rocks

“The Austrian phrase dear to the heart of Musil, “es ist passiert,” it just happened like that, some unexpected perfect contact between the spirit and the world, a hand that writes words as another might absently draw in the sand or on a sheet of paper, all without wishing to take out a patent or assure himself of exclusive rights to the sketch.” So Claudio Magris in Danube. He’s talking of the jottings of one Marianne von Willemer née Jung, whose stray lyrics in correspondence with Goethe ended up amongst the poems of Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan, a reworking of Hafiz’s Persian. (A story of a girl, a sixteen year old ballerina, emerging dressed as Harlequin out of a giant egg, bought for “two hundred gold florins and an annual pension” for the mother by the Prussian banker von Willemer; subsequent Pygmalionesquerade wherein she “learnt polite behaviour, French, Latin, Italian, drawing and singing.” Magris (rather enigmatically): “After fourteen years of living together Willemer thought it a good thing to marry her, as he was concerned at the appearance of Goethe over their tranquil horizon.”) Magris is seemingly less concern’d about the thievery of Goethe (though he notes the “malpractice,” calling it “a typical and perhaps extreme case of a man appropriating the work of a woman”) than he is astonish’d by how “Marianne” wrote “a mere handful of poems, which are among the masterpieces of lyric poetry the world over, and then wrote nothing else ever again.” “Est ist passiert.” It’s the “supra-personal quality of poetry, that mysterious conjunction and coincidence of elements” that Magris frets. That sense that poetry is not only hors de commerce, but answerable to naught, inextricable, wholly ungainsayable in its purity, fickle, gratuitous, and abrupt. Magris: “. . . those poems of hers that appeared under the name of another person speak of the futility of every name printed at the foot of a page or on the cover of a book of poems, for poetry, like the air and the passing seasons, belongs to no one, not even to its author.” And, later, lamenting Marianne von Willemer’s absence of “place”—beyond, say, a skimping footnote in a critical edition—in literary history: “Literature is a maintenance system: it is not content with a few sublime lines, but needs a production mechanism—it matters little whether of great pages or banal ones—with which to construct its distribution network, its cycle of editions, reviews, theses, debates, prizes, schoolbooks, lectures.”

“Es ist passiert.” I recall the delight with which A. R. Ammons’d repeat Richard Hugo’s line—“Archie, how’d you end up in this racket?” Ammons loved that particular way of labeling “literature,” or the version of it practiced in tony U.S. universities in the late ’seventies. “Racket.” Or was it “fuckin’ racket”? All the social manifest and usufruct and peck-order that buoys up the froth of literature. I recall feeling its expectant insidious gnawing myself, its regulator-stocks and hoops almost immediately, once having “shared” some small parcel of my angel-salvaged (or pilfer’d) loot publicly. For surely, that “racket” begins outside the precincts that eventually consume it, in some authentic communing irrepressible, some unfinagled smooch and romp with godlets—if not, one’s got no reason to hoe the interminable row. (And some drop out, some can the bewiggery of it all, drink mightily for two decades to appease the witless thirst for a purity without the trappings.) Admit it: isn’t the best moment in any poem there where one drops all pretense of control without even knowing it, quits skirting the impenetrable “construct,” sunders one’s bargain with the mores of authenticity, and rips. And in the inexplicables of the aftermath, one’s gone stupid, a moron of the word: “es ist passiert.”

Magris’s attractive notion that water itself—“that flow, that flux of colour in the waters and in all things else”—is “the secret source of all authentic baroque.” Unending benevolent spray of fountains.

Writing against privation, the void, monstrous total alienation and doubt. Magris: “Writing may not really be able to give a voice to utter desolation, to the nullity of life, to those moments when it is simply a void, privation and horror. The mere fact of writing in some way fills that void, gives it form, makes the horror of it communicable and therefore, even if nominally, triumphs over it.” (And immediately the mockery arrives, the “racket” keeping its house in order: “Miss Stein’s not interested in formless nullity, or doubt.”) (I am remind’d, too, of Walker Percy’s degrees of alienation: the man in the subway reading about a man in the subway’s alienation is no longer wholly alienated, no longer so alienated as the man not reading about ’s double’s alienation . . .)

Johannes Kepler: “I know that you like Nothing, not because of its minimal value, but because one can play with it in a light, witty way, like a garrulous sparrow, and I therefore think that a gift will be more welcome to you and more appreciated the more it approaches to zero.” In 1611, Kepler sends friend and protector Johannes Matthäus Wackher von Wackenfels a short treatise call’d Strena, seu, De Nive Sexangula, (Étrenne, or, Concerning the Six-sided Snowflake) beginning with these words; in it, he inquires—with half irony, half rigor—why falling snow invariably condenses into six-pointed stars. “A mathematician, writes Kepler . . . , has nothing and obtains nothing . . . he circumscribes nothing with the round sign of the zero; he knows only signs, not things. It is therefore fitting that he should turn his thoughts to the snow, which melts to nothing and which in Latin (nix) sounds so like the word for nothing, Nichts.” And no mention of Wallace Stevens—he who “beholds / Nichts that is not there and the nix that is”—in the vicinity, no sign the insurance man might’ve read poor replaceable Kepler, who “abhorred the infinite, which for him was chaos.”

The story of one Ferdinand Thrän, neo-Gothic architect, author of a guide to the cathedral at Ulm (begun in 1377, completed in 1890, with the tallest steeple in the world), the cathedral he nearly wreck’d in restoring due to “his obstinate belief in a ‘law’ about arches, which he was convinced he had discovered.” Thrän, too, a kind of specialist in “discourtesies, as is shown by the scrupulous File of Rudenesses Reeived which he kept for years and which lies, unpublished and unknown, in a box put away in a cupboard in the cathedral.” Magris: “If genuine writing is born form the desire to account for the copious inconvenience of living, then . . . Literature here is accountancy, the ledger of profit and loss, the balance sheet of an inevitable deficit. But the orderliness of the register, the precision and completeness of the records, may give a pleasure that compensates for the repulsiveness for what is actually noted. . . . The master of affronts makes order among them, keeps them under control, becomes master of the disgraceful world and of humiliations undergone.” Which is a recognizable “breed” even in the current precincts of contemporary U.S. letters, I’d say. See, too, B. S. Johnson’s superb comic novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).

Morning, the pre-dawn dog-walk completed with a high cranial tilt, scanning the sky for sign of the Orionids, a minor meteor shower occurring seasonally, the result of earth’s trajectory through dust kick’d up by Halley’s comet. There! One faint line shooting out down and away, north of Orion himself! If, as Heraclitus claims, the sun is the width of a man’s foot, my meteor attains a length of seven or eight suns, and declines. Small enough to edge unconvincingly into the brainbox as mirage, doubt lending credence to its possible mere subpalpebral incidence. No. Doubt no morning sense. “Es ist passiert.”

Ulm Cathedral

Friday, October 19, 2007

Through Words of Others


Skull-scattery into the weekend, tender end to the Ur-extended week. With a kind of monstrous participle dangling unforsworn (unforswunk), precocious ambient modifier, bricking up the innards. (Primitivist masonry.) Invariably, that batty coot Laura (Riding) Jackson (I nearly wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder) is a solace at such moments, unregalia’d and nutty-grim.

In Anarchism Is Not Enough she says, “Poetry I consider to be an art only when the poet consciously attempts to capture social prestige: when it is an art of public flattery.” (“Hey, I know that dude.”) And, next page: “Poetry is therefore not concentrated on an audience but on itself and only produces satisfaction in the sense that wherever this energy exists in a sufficient degree of strength and intactness it will be encouraged by poetry in further concentration of itself.” Wha? Poetry breeds poetry? One supposes the premise solid enough if one’s willing to accept poetry’s way of coursing unbid (unbinding) into the vessel of the poet (Martians, radio, Wm. Blake “hid” in the cupboard, &c.) Clarifying itself (like butter), disowning the pan or pot that allows it to fester uncongealingly a moment “above” the flame. (Or see Percy Bysshe Shelley’s notion of a “world poem”—“that great poem, which all poets like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind have built up since the beginning of the world.”) (Or see Susan Howe’s note in The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History: “Poetry is never a personal possession. The poem was a vision and gesture before it became sign and coded exchange in a political economy of value.”)

I went to (Riding) Jackson (“because I wished to live deliberately”—the promise of diliberation to Thoreau akin to the promise of language’s “rational meaning” to (Riding) Jackson)—nudged there by Stephen Collis’s terrific Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions, 2006). He lists it amongst Zukofsky’s Bottom, Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, Howe’s own My Emily Dickinson, Williams’s In the American Grain, H.D.’s Tribute to Freud, Pound’s Spirit of Romance, and Duncan’s H.D. Book—all “poets’ attempts to write their response to other poets,” all “Janus-faced works—part exegesis, part original expression,” all “singularities”—works writ in a mode of what he calls “anarcho-scholasticism,” dabblers and enthusiasts working the archival holes, bridging the rifts. (Collis’s book joins that select bunch.)

Such writing a kind of writing into the archive, the “world poem,” writing against the archive’s regulated keepers. As Howe says of Dickinson’s “decision not to publish her poems in her lifetime,” such unlicensed “tampering” with the “rules”—for the roots of archive go toward both “origin” or “beginning” and “law” or “authority”—of the archive becomes “a consummate Calvinist gesture of [paradoxical] self-assertion by a poet with faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity.” (O’Hara’s sense of publishing and “reception” is rather akin to Dickinson’s—“you just let all the different bodes fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months.”) Collis quotes Derrida’s Archive Fever: “The question of the archive is not . . . a question of the past . . . it is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.” (Any asserting of direct lineage is grosso modo an archival gesture, though clumsy as name-dropping in comparison to the textual meander and caress represent’d by books like Collis’s and Howe’s, &c. Just as any closing off, any opting out, any furtive scripting, any leaving out, &c. is contra the unfussy and unbridgeable American wilderness, its hopalong writerly gait, its open clumsiness. Collis, on the nefarious “reach” of notions of “enclosure and privatization” of the commons: “To shut up speech. To shut up documents in archive’s exclusion. To shut up land so that it many be ‘improved’ and become profitable. To shut up definition in dictionary versions.”) (“Hey, I know them, too.”)

“After great feelings, a painful formality comes.”

Two pieces of two poems. Stephen Collis, the first two parts of “Abstraction Suite,” out of Anarchive (New Star Books, 2005):

This constricts measure
I open allegory
to all my impossibles
down by the harbour
wide swaths of blue
collect painted light
to sell to willing fishermen
now there is an opening
in the wall to my left
a sort of stunned writing
takes over masonry
and filters the sense
of separateness through
others’ indifference
I become what
they have been talking about
or and it is better
this way they become
what I have been
saying all along
that poems equate us
running out of structures
and taking up the
straining materials of art


An abandon of metaphors
this shelters mutter
Arp history rewrites
serum and corpuscle
saturated and opaque
as in I was over this
long before I began
a muscular canal
inside the body
or a contraction
of historical particulars
linking bodies one
to the next in
a structure of
pure pigment or
was it a poem
veering off its track
towards fleeting feeling
And, the beginning and ending of Frank O’Hara’s “Dido” (c. 1951):
        Suppose you really do, toward the end, fall away into a sunset which is your own self-ignited pyre? is it any the less a sunset just because you stopped carrying the torch? I must pull myself together tomorrow early, is market dallying and this time I’ve got something to get rid of, inherited I’d never want. “Like has a way of making everything die.” Should I now that the war is over voluntarily about face and shoot things squarely and in the middle to test the steadiness of my rust-covered hand which has been so dependable of late? I do not love hunting or any of the Roman positions, yet foreigners frighten the very shores! Am I too lady luck or nuts?
        . . . The leaves do not wither because it is winter, but because they stay there and know better, and they want what must happen, they are the lying down kind. If, when my cerise muslin sweeps across the agora, I hear no whispers even if they’re really echoes, I know they think I’m on my last legs, “She’s just bought a new racing car” they say, or “She’s using mercurochrome on her nipples.” They’d like to think so. I have a stevedore friend who tells everything that goes on in the harbor.
        Well all right. But if this doesn’t cost me the supreme purse, my very talent, I’m not the starlet I thought I was. I’ve been advertising in the Post Office lately. Somebody’s got to ruin the queen, my ship’s just got to come in.
Well all right. “I open allegory / to all my impossibles.” My putting the two pieces into dialogue a little batty. Sense of an echo-y rambunct of concerns. One, my old bête noire metaphor, that American compulsion to insist on shooting straight from the hip: “Like has a way of making everything die.” (Which I don’t believe.) Next to Collis’s “abandon of metaphors.” (Later in “Abstraction Suite” one reads: “What is a pronunciamiento? / the unpronounceable / movement of arms.”) Unhesitant kinship between “a poem / veering off its track / towards fleeting feeling” and “Somebody’s got to ruin the queen, my ship’s just got to come in”? I insist.

Susan Howe and Stephen Collis

Thursday, October 18, 2007

“Where Dinah Shore Meets the Ocean”

In Traffic

Whence the skittish indifference, the continual bolting, one book abandon’d for another? Whence the benumb’d torpidity, the singular inert allowable manifesto, thane to a dismal imparticularity. Whence the sluggard’s milk? (What is he talking about?) I achieve the rain-slough’d streets, the leaves adhering to every surface, yellow coinage. The dog, morose of brow, jaunty of hip, trots and noses and stalls and continues. “I do not know but it must be confessed that the glance we give at the world in a leisure hour is melancholy: that melancholy cleaves to the English mind as to the Aeolian harp.” Thus Emerson. “Basically, artists work out of rather stupid kinds of impulses and then the work is done.” So Jasper Johns. And Olson in Call Me Ishmael says of Melville: “He reads to write. Highborn stealth, Edward Dahlberg calls originality, the act of a cutpurse Autolycus who makes his thefts as invisible as possible.” Autolycus, Shakespeare’s wily “snapper-up of unconsider’d trifles,” out of the Greek for “self” + “wolf,” son of fleet Hermes-the-bridge, Hermes-the-translator, cunning Hermes-the-liar, that skanky underworld conduit. Autolycus, father to Anticlea, the mother of sly Odysseus. “Melancholy amongst books, one’s solace sought in tortuous genealogy, its unwitting dodge and parry.” Thus Onus the Phrygian. Is it—it likely is—that heroic Olsonian nudge that’s making one fret and niggle so?
And to hook on here is a lifetime of assiduity. Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it.

And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you’re in, forever.
In? Isn’t the longing, the hereditary growl, to remain perennially, yea, savagely, out? Not to find oneself suddenly squatting on the edge of what Louis-Ferdinand Céline calls the “lyrical bidet,” that tidy kingdom of the grand shimmery falsehoods, that culture of egoism and vacuous sentiment and amour-propre that is the “collective consciousness”? Obsessional mastery of what? (Of course, what Olson’s talking about is less the dogged diligence required to become an “expert” (in whatever), and something more like “developing good study habits.”) Taylorist efficiency models for poets (“everything else very fast”). However. There’s a spouting sense of daily glide-and-smudge-ism operating here. That one is in need of some depth, some focus beyond the plangent obvious, the backs of spine-crack’d paperbacks drawn out randomly, shoved back ferociously. Some faux-Eliotic version of America—“These shores ruin’d by my fragments”—is at work against what is possible out in the wild oceanic muddle unsound’d by depth-gauge or -charge, unswum by cormorant. (What is he talking about?) To depudorate the deeps. Fear of becoming “mere press,” a press-gang of hyperboreal intent, cold brute shiny skimmer, slick maestro, part of the mob of spoof superficies. “The press is a school that serves to turn men into brutes, because it relieves them of thinking.” So Flaubert to George Sand. Yeah.

Charles Olson

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Quinnehtukqut &c.

Two Rakes

In Isaac Babel’s sketchbooks, wherein he jotted story ideas whilst working as a war correspondent in the Russian-Polish campaign of 1920, a note to himself: “Very simple, A FACTUAL ACCOUNT, no superfluous descriptions. . . . Pay no attention to continuity in the story.” And twice, the phrase “a listing of the books”:
The books.

        Style, scope.—The cemetery in Kozin . . .
        The estate of Kulaczkowski, horses in the drawing room—a listing of the books.

A poem in prose.

        Books—I grabbed as many as I could, they keep calling me—I cannot tear myself away.—We gallop off—I keep throwing books away—a piece of my soul—I’ve thrown them all away.—The core—a listing of the books.—Books and battle—Heloise and Abelard.—Napoleon.—Anatole France.
I bicycle in under a smear of black night, six a.m. Dank cellar smell, alewives, sauerkraut. The recent cold weather’s knock’d the insect noises back, dull unclubbable hum of traffic in the outlying circumference roads. And Babel’s capable of beginning a story with:
So there we were making mincemeat of the Poles at Belaya Tserkov. So much so that the trees were rattling. I’d been hit in the morning, but managed to keep on buzzing, more or less. The day, from what I remember, was toppling toward evening. I got cut off from the brigade commander, and was left with only a bunch of five proletarian Cossacks tagging along after me. All around me everyone’s hugging each other with hatchets, like priests from two villages, the sap’s slowly trickling out of me, my horse has pissed all over itself.
The evening spent camp’d under library bulbs, reading Joshua Harmon’s Quinnehtukqut. Rather haunt’d by one single-lined paragraph: “To what is already written I can add little more.” Brilliant restraint in the prose, befitting the New England locale: “She told me each bird had a song and each song was a secret tongue—the nuthatch’s nasal bleat, the cardinal’s liquid whistle, the rough voice of the crow. Only the mockingbird can speak in the manner of another, she said, though she doesn’t know what he says.”

How Quinnehtukqut reminds one of Paul Metcalf’s spare historical collaging, or is it the similar terrain talking? Harmon’s weave using the raw stuff ingeniously, keeping one unsettled (in a novel of unsettled individuals):
A girl wishing to know her destiny must go blindfolded into a cabbage patch, turn around three times and point to the cabbages. If she designates a hard head, her future husband will be all she could wish for. If, unfortunately, she points to a soft head, she is doomed to live with a worthless mate.
A man in the book who voyaged, minor adjunct (“In his books Byrd did not mention my name”) with Admiral Byrd, and return’d, drifty and insolvable: “Our voices, Byrd once told me, and this too I remember—they are something we can do without.”

And Alexander Kluge’s The Devil’s Blind Spot got paw’d in my restlessness, my skittish fandango. “From the days of the silent movies, there is a recurring scene, in which the backdrops—the horizons—placed on rollers, are moved toward the actors. The space the actors occupy contracts. Aware of a change, the viewer cannot make out the reason for it and feels something disturbing is going on. In our new century this effect is becoming a general HUMAN EXPERIENCE.” And he points to a photograph: “Five mules, cut off by the flood waters of the Missouri, wait patiently to be rescued”—an island the size of a kitchen amidst a white roil of water.

“To what is already written I can add little more.”

Isaac Babel and Joshua Harmon

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chain Gang

Red Leaves

A gaunt morning, unprepared for.

Emily Dickinson to Colonel Higginson: “The ear is the last face. We hear after we see, which to tell you first is still my dismay.” And later, after admitting to re-reading Higginson’s Oldport Days, she writes, rather enigmatically: “Largest last, like nature.”

Out of Oldport Days: “‘Children,’ thought Heine, ‘are younger than we, and can still remember the time when they were trees or birds, and can therefore understand and speak their language; but we are grown old, and have too many cares, and too much jurisprudence and bad poetry in our heads.’” And Higginson, witnessing a flock of bird-like boys skating: “Now they are in a confused cluster, now they sweep round and round in a circle, now it is broken into fragments and as quickly formed again; games are improvised and abandoned; there seems to be no plan or leader, but all do as they please, and yet somehow act in concert, and all chatter all the time.”

Heinrich Heine, in Pictures of Travel: “More accurate information of the town of Göttingen may be very conveniently obtained from its “Topography,” by K. F. H. Marx. Though entertaining the most sacred regard for its author, who was my physician, and manifested for me much esteem, still I cannot pass by his work with altogether unconditional praise, inasmuch as he has not with sufficient zeal combatted the erroneous opinions that the ladies of Göttingen have not enormous feet. On this point I speak authoritatively, having for many years been earnestly occupied with a refutation of this opinion. To confirm my views I have not only studied comparative anatomy and made copious extracts from the rarest works in the library, but have also watched for hours, in the Weender street, the feet of the ladies as they walked by. In the fundamentally erudite treatise, which forms the result of these studies, I speak FIRSTLY, Of feet in general; SECONDLY, of the feet of antiquity; THIRDLY, of elephants’ feet; FOURTHLY, of the feet of the Göttingen ladies; FIFTHLY, I collect all that was ever said in Ulrich’s garden of the subject of female feet; SIXTHLY, I regard feet in their connection with each other, availing myself of the opportunity to extend my observation to ankles, calves, knees, &c. and finally and SEVENTHLY, if I can manage to hunt up sheets of paper of sufficient size I will present my readers with some copperplate fac-similes of the feet of the fair dames of Göttingen.”

K. F. H. Marx, in “Memoir of the Life and Writings of the late Professor Blumenbach of Göttingen” (“The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Vol. XXX. No. LX, April 1841): “He was peculiarly zealous in drawing from ancient monuments and poets explanations of doubtful questions, and the elucidation of different problems in natural history. The migration of animals, and their partial occurrence in prodigious quantity, and over a great extent appeared to him a subject by no means cleared up. . . . His papers on the sexual inclinations of animals, and on the natural history of serpents, display not only talent but critical observation. There is much interesting matter in his account of a kangaroo which he kept alive in his house for some time, and in his observations of the pipa and on tapeworms. . . . He expressed his belief that the syenite of Pliny is our granite.”

Pliny, in The Natural History: “In another tract of that countrey, there be certaine men with long shagged tailes most swift and light of foot: & some again that with their eares cover their whole bodie.”

A random piece of chain, unprepared for, infinitely extensible.

Surinam Toad (Pipa pipa)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Works & Days


To re-configure Pound: “And then went down with the ship”—meaning, Friday night in a bibulous quandary, one snuck off with Bill Luoma’s Works & Days (Hard Press / The Figures, 1998) and so avoid’d Danube “for the nonce.” Ben Friedlander’s right (blurbing) to point to Joe Brainard’s “naïve and winning” style in Luoma’s “arsenal”—and now it’s got me wondering about one of my recent “tirades” against what I call’d something like the dumb’d-down style, that prehensile baby-talk way in recent “American letters” of gabbing at (and grabbing at) everything, thinking to myself—“jeez, act like an adult, for christ’s sake, the darkness surrounds us” so often lately. Stall’d out immaturity, the least attractive quality of the U.S. citoyen, that, and aggressive, belligerent know-nothingism.

Still, I enjoy’d large chunks of Luoma’s book, the naïvety temper’d by both a seeping tangible love for ’s sidekicks, “everybody’s dopey autobiography” (and Stein, Gertrude, it suddenly occurs to me, is likely one of the bigger stiffs in that goo-goo lineage) and by the evidence (in Luoma) of uncommon particulars—jargons private and public—making the knowledge bank creditable, that is, rich. (In Luoma, the lore and lingo of baseball, and, in one piece, one of the strongest, titled “12 Peanuts & an Easton,” the mysterious inner workings of cars—“we were the ones who owned the funny jeep with a 14-spline transmission shaft.”) (Of course, the other “bank” is poetry and poets—San Diego poets and New York poets of a certain “era”—and gossip, even if rarely a sufficient armature to hang a figure off, is usually a viable way to register a kind of semi-trustworthy décor.) Here’s Luoma looking for replacement spikes:
The search becomes a project of wandering, with allowed rules that let you name things along the way that you’re not searching for. Like the discovery of a new thrift store or the sighting of a person wearing a hat in a neighborhood you’ve never been in. This is the whole kind of lazy philosophy that describes my life. I assert that getting lost is part of it. I embrace the inherent good in it. Fear is transformed into let’s go into that thrift store.
Which is less Guy Debord than the kind of boy who’ll invent, even in a jam, a new game with a ball, or a rock and a stick, in a patter of continual adjustment to circumstance and ennui-levels. Or girl with a horse. Akin to Henri Matisse (something I just stump’d my toe against, in Hilary Spurling’s newish biography): “To sum up, I work without a theory. I am aware primarily of the forces involved, and find myself driven forward by an idea which I can really only grasp little by little as it grows with the picture.” Not unlike the tiny knee-squats, pivots and foot-adjustments of, say, a shortstop, caught up in the trick of remaining hyper-alert and hyper-relax’d simultaneously.

Poetry reading (and other) dynamics—likely some I am not identifying—in Luoma’s “Illegal Park,” Luoma responding (in part) to the complaint “it’s hard to read after me because my work is so ironic.” (“Western Love” here is a Luoma poem, though not one found in Works & Days):
I laughed during it in response to her I want to be funny. I say her testimony is terrifying I love that. Why do you want to be funny? It’s a dumb question because I want to be terrifying and I’m still mad about the ironic comment and o irony is certainly not terrifying I say. Western Love is about passion and passion is often not very funny and is only ironic to Alanis Morissette. Passion is also terrifying because it’s everything, all at once and forever. Moreso I say the humor is a trick just as it’s a trick that I appear calm next to Douglass.
Passion as “everything, all at once and forever” rhymes with something Magris (in the retrieved Danube) reports concerning the Hungarian Count Mihaly Károlyi von Nagykaroly, who late in a life of exile had to sell ’s raincoat in order to pay the grocer’s bill. Magris says, talking about how history “comes into existence a little later, when it is already past”:
Speaking of the capitulation of Bulgaria, an event decisive to the outcome of the First World War and therefore to the end of a civilization, Count Károlyi writes that while he was living through it he did not realize its importance, because “at that moment, ‘that moment’ had not yet become ‘that moment’”. . . In the pure present the only dimension, however, in which we live, there is no history . . . As Zeno denied the movement of an arrow shot from a bow, because at each single instant it was stationary at some point in space, and a succession of immobile instants cannot constitute motion, so we might say that it is not the succession of these moments-without-history which creates history, but rather the correlation and additions brought to them by the writing of history.
Is the “shift” of the postmodern the making of “that moment” simultaneous to its historical version—that is, a kind of instant mediation through “writing”? (And irony rushing in to fill the gap whence the terrifying overwhelm of a presence unmediated just left?) No more going down “with” the ship, that impassion’d suck of the present, except in boffo camaraderie, all sidelong knowing glance: “humor is a trick.”

Henri Matisse, Bill Luoma, and Count Mihaly Károlyi von Nagykaroly

Friday, October 12, 2007

Jam à Go-Go

Hosta ubiquitous

The upshot of any binge is the downturn. Little mossy particulars covering all the mossy particulars, a kind of fuzzy ineluctable “detort” and “detrude” of time’s own devastating shimmy. O Doctor Johnson! To deto´rt. “To wrest from the original import, meaning, or design.” To detru´de. “To thrust down; to force into a lower place.” (Thomson writes of how “the vernal sun awakes / The torpid sap, detruded to the root / By wintry winds.”) O if only one’d lived out the untoilsome choredom of a fishery balker, standing high up a cliff and signaling to the grunts in the fishing-boats, pointing out the approach of a “whole finny shole of herrings,” writing covert jam-ditties with the jack-knife’d off point of a black chough’s wing primary. (Or the life of a bounder out in the anacamptick hills, dislodging rocks with echoey bullroaring, words themselves gone atumbling through sheer rampant noise. O colossal harbinger, o sumptuary, o nut.)

Undecided in the casuistry-pocket, what to read next? Trace more doings of the école de San Diego in Bill Luoma’s Works & Days? Tackle Mark Polizzotti’s fat biography of the fat-lipped ideologue André Breton, Revolution of the Mind? Storm into Joshua Harmon’s Quinnehtukqut for its granitic diarist prose, and its “A”-24 L. Z. Masque-style (overlapping “voices”) part at the end with the lovely title, “Farmhouse in a Fold of Fields”? Or juggle Mitteleuropan historical and cultural particulars in Claudio Magris’s Danube? (Years back, inhabiting a shabby sublet above an Italian restaurant whence one’d descend for day-old dark breads, my revery born: that of traveling “the length of the Danube, source to mouth.” Because, in my geographical unsturdiness I somehow pictured that river running north to south—I may secretly believe that the case with all rivers, something about the way the Mississippi and map conventions determine my “tilt and percept” of the earth—I loved the echo of that trajectory in the phrase.) Magris, randomly perused:
. . . the poems of Vasko Popa—who originally wrote in Rumanian, but has for many years been writing in Serbo-Croat—evoke barbaric winters and the wolves of yesteryear. The literature which is already written is a concave mirror set down on the earth like a dome, as if to shelter our inability to give direct utterance to things and feelings. A well-cultivated literary taste and a measure of cautious modesty prevent a mere follower from speaking of the solitude and the wind of the great plains, of the tracks of migrations printed in the muddy soil of his homeland. But if a second-rate novelist, or indeed an exacting poet, recalls that wind or that age-old asperity, a perfect quotation my permit us to mention them, through the medium of the words of others, without fear of falling into sentimental “local colour.” So literature rests upon the world like one hemisphere resting upon another, two mirrors reflecting each other, as at the barber’s, exchanging between them the elusiveness of life, or at least our own inability to grasp it.
Lovely. And immediately reminding me of a miniature poem by Robert Morgan found in Red Owl, (1972), titled “Weed Above Snow”:
Folded like the meat of a walnut in sleep the worm
in his high minaret, the bulb on the weed stalk rocked by wind,
dreams of you thinking of him.
This poem the space between two mirrors.
And of William Matthews, somewhere in the same “era,” talking about East European poets (likely thinking of Popa) with an image-cache of things like “the dogs surrounding the campfires of Europe,” something an American poet’d never say, meaning a kind of inbred historical atavism, accumulations of cruelty and warring, the Upper Paleolithic emergence of blades seeping down into the Old World. And stirring up Vasko Popa-translator Charles Simic’s remark in a review of Creeley, how the poems in Creeley’s book, For Love (1962), were: “almost all about love, a subject of considerable interest to a vast number of human beings that for some curious reason is absent from the work of many of our poets today, who, unlike poets in other cultures, generally stay away from any overt expression of erotic feelings, as if love and sex were of little concern to them.” It’s the latter part of that that struck me. Connect’d vaguely to my sense of American lack of historical memory, history’s brute blood-sense accumulated. As if the same skittish saturating forces retarded both Eros and Mnemosyne. Somehow, in an “era” (now) wherein the U.S.’s (our) brash thuggery-bent mug is pushing itself deep into Mesopotamia, it’d appear “time” to pursue literary aims beyond mere muggery, the sad superficial impotent ironizing we seem stuck with . . .

The upshot: the Magris.

Claudio Magris

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Jam City Breakdown

“La Fenêtre”

Jam means aimless fussing, looking for a way in and, in, knowing the routine, the barriers and badges, looking for a way out. Fussing means “opportunity to fuss”: what a large temporary empty room allows, its local breezes and stinks, molecular collisions moving parcels of odor-stack’d air about, the dog’s, the nasturtiums, the baked ziti getting bombard’d in the microwave, the stir’d up ambient motes and marvels. Aucune idée d’ou viennent ces choses inexplicablement fatueuses . . . Invention. I invent. Apollinaire: “When man tried to imitate walking he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg. He thus performed an act of Surrealism without realizing it.” (When man attempt’d to replicate talking with signs, he invent’d la poésie, which does not resemble speech.) Something Virginia Woolf excised (Jacob’s Room):
“He will fall in love,” thought Bonamy.
“Some Greek woman with a straight nose” he thought. bitterly.
It was this kind of bitterness which frequently led him to
read Chaucer. – if not Chaucer some other of the
ancients who – Donne perhaps or Ben Jonson –
for though a number of people write well enough nowadays,
what we have lost entirely is vigour of language.
There is a scene for example in Bartholomew Fair of a
fat woman scolding which could not be pieced together
by twenty of our young men writing in concert; & then
this when this torrent of language gets its way
the chances are that it sweeps down with it something
lovelysomething – as & phrase like a flash of lightning.
astonishing. Bonamy turned the pages.
“He will fall in love” he thought again.
No success. Puerile failure to jumpstart by copying, by mimickry. Varoom-varroom. (“I feel silly using this code.”) Ben Jonson: “(Now, Wit, helpe at a pinch, good Wit come, come, good Wit, if it be thy will.)”

Up too late reading. (Replacement noises in the brain-box, against its tilt-a-whirl emptiness.) Finish’d The Middle Room in a wee hour heave. Did it subside a little in its artifice? Or did one become accustom’d to its high-ratchet’d metaphoricks? (A little of both.) It moved rather clearly out of what I call’d writerly “mirth” and into something more keenly a study of les dispositions du Coeur, psyche-mobilized, or im-.

As Jonson’d say, he who never lack’d for something to say, unlike the dumbstruck members of the squalor-city in one’s own common brain-box, the “large temporary empty room”-fill’d city of too little sleep and “fat woman scolding / dead man walking” dreams: “I have sheene thee in thy Ledder sherkin, ere now, Mashter of the hobby-Horses, as bushy and as stately as Thou shem’st to be.” Which is one way to greet an autobiographical sketch, more than a little loop’d with its stories. Loop’d within, corral’d by, made drunk by its particular human grace.

Vanessa Bell’s Dust Jacket for Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Everyday Jam

Pumpkin Field

Uncanny how the days gang up to deny men anything beyond an inspecific gaze, a gauzy replica of fleet harass’d time, its minion minutes bent meteoric, droplet-shaped, gaining lengths fractious, objurgatory, shredding. “Or so it seems to me.” Whatever one sees is indistinct and whatever one desires is partial, or of some fremitous cacodoxy, noises “off.” What is a mystery is how swiftly things enamour’d go chaffy and moribund—that de Certeau of yesterday par example. Sitting in another school hallway (becouch’d, luckily) I had another, longer peek into The Practice of Everyday Life. How poinky and unutterable it seems, big Latinate fuel burn-off and no décollage, no blunt démarrage. How did the poet put it that odd night amongst the beery cigarettes, the train’s whistle blatting out its exculpatory fat sound down along the river? “The Latin always shunning and shussing / In the undertow of empire.” (I see the Kerouac scroll retains its initial stutter step—“I first met met Neal not long after my father died . . .”—editor Howard Cunnell suggesting that “because it so beautifully suggests the sound of a car misfiring before starting up for a long journey,” it gets left uncorrect’d.) Met met, varoom. Maybe. The obverse of the book suddenly turn’d to listless straw, a desiccant shush’d husk, in one’s hands: a nearby siren song, the mewing out of a book dismiss’d. Or, if not dismiss’d, merely nosed at with indifference, the way a dog does, methodically checking the territory. Andrew Joron, in a blues context (blues as “matrix of the world’s subaltern cultures,” the “raising of the voiceless voice, omnipresent roar of that river forced underground”) in The Cry at Zero (Counterpath, 2007): “Poetry is the self-organized criticality of the cry.” What initially appears lambently aphoristic (and somewhat enigmatic) gets explain’d:
The concept of “self-organized criticality” can be illustrated by pouring a quantity of sand onto a tabletop: the fallen particles will build up into a conical pile. This shape is the product of self-organization, for the pile maintains itself around a critical vertex, a balance-point between order and chaos. Once this critical point is reached, the effect of a single particle’s impact on the pile no longer can be predicted. One particle may cause a chain reaction of cascades upon impact, while another may rest where it falls. Not only have the system’s elements spontaneously organized themselves in reaction to an influx of energy, but the system as a whole has “tuned” itself toward a state of criticality, where single events have the widest possible range of effects.
Which is a sort of gorgeous elaboration of Williams’s definition of a poem’s being “a small (or large) machine made out of words.” Too, one’s reminded, rather unwillingly, of the way the notion of “torque” ’d “fit” with such a particle-bombard’d tenuous “pile.” To say nothing of the “critical vertex” (lovely word) maintain’d by the writer, writer surfing a tube, writer balancing a tightrope, writer slipping words into the slipstream of the gang’d up denying days, writer spinning a stack of plates atop a pole on the end of ’s nose . . .

Sue Broadway

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Jam Today

Three Lights

Leafing the pages of Adam Zagajewski’s Another Beauty, prose scratchings. It’s the tiniest paragraphs that I love most, the frail indices of a half-glimpse, a gesture nearly thwart’d. There, in the limn’d detail—tracery opposing the inveterate blocks of solider argument surrounding—is where I turn first. Blood drops on a trowel blade, finger nick’d whilst gardening. Cauterizing brilliance against the smear of the everyday.

“A certain traveler who knew many continents was asked what he found most remarkable of all. He replied: the ubiquity of sparrows.”

Michel de Certeau: “I mean by ‘myth’ a fragmented discourse which is articulated on the heterogeneous practices of a society and which also articulates them symbolically. In modern Western culture, it is no longer a discourse that plays this role, but rather a transport, in other words a practice: writing. The origin is no longer what is narrated, but rather the multiform and murmuring activity of producing a text and producing society as a text. ‘Progress’ is scriptural in type.” Discourse: “running to and fro,” nicking the turf of the field of activity. Somewhere in the redoubtable mire of the etymology, back behind the French courir, is corse, not unrelated to scorse, to exchange, to barter, “to corse horses,” a brokery, a horse-jobber: Italian’s got both cozzonare and scozzonare ‘to coarce or trucke horses with a horse-coarcer’ (Florio).” Transport: a carrying off, a carrying across. Beyond mere potting about, discoursing, the figure of glib liberty, nonchalance, unweight’d by anything. Writing as transport makes of it a guardianship, a keeping, against the thief of speech. It mimics the activity of metaphor making (its carrying). See Puttenham’s lovely “To call the top of a tree, or of a hill, the crowne of a tree or of a hill: for in deede crowne is the highest ornament of a Princes head, made like a close garland, or els the top of a mans head, where the haire windes about, and because such terme is not applyed naturally to a tree, or to a hill, but is transported from a mans head to a hill or tree, therefore it is called by metaphore, or the figure of transport.”

Sparrows—how Luis Omar Salinas somewhere call’d sparrows “the little brown philosophers of the treetops.” Crowning drab noisy expenditures with stateliness. That “multiform and murmuring activity” of a text of sparrows.

So I jam, replicatingly. Another smeary dollop of The Middle Room down’d hier soir, sitting in the hallway of a “middle school.” Thinking about the activity of “keeping a journal,” of “writing stream of consciousness.” How I resist the mad pursuit, tempering everything with the magical light-box organ-machine, the Mac. (I suffer an undignify’d, yea, execrable “hand.”) I like a sentence to please, and refuse to advance before it does, (please). Or is “jamming,” my ambivalent (omnidirectional, to and fro) flailing, a form of “writing stream of consciousness.”

Zagajewski: “A writer who keeps a personal diary uses it to record what he knows. In his poems or stories he sets down what he doesn’t know.”

Luis Omar Salinas, Michel de Certeau, and Adam Zagajewski

Monday, October 08, 2007



October and the sun like a sledge. Bicycle tinkering, the tire kaput, barely web’d enough to withhold the tube’s attempt’d herniations. Patching and readjusting. Grime city breakdown. Long late night swathes of reading Jennifer Moxley’s The Middle Room, arrest’d by sentence after sentence, by supple Homeric metaphors unreel’d with dexterity and finesse. Return to the baroquerie Hemingway cut to shreds. A Proustian ardor, maybe. A deft acuity in humoring the affect’d tribe’s peccadilloes, one delectable example being the remark how, during a class visit (to a Stephen Rodefer-run “seminar in poetic translation”) made by Paul Auster, “he and Rodefer were so devastatingly ‘in the know’ that I feared they might tax even the apparent boundlessness of their combined suavity.” I only grow a little alarm’d at the repeat’d sketches of costume, and (often) of furnishings—being entirely indifferent to garment and surround, and suspicious of attempts to “acculturate” such. (I am willing to argue—not unseriously—that only one single model of anything “essential” ought be made available—one style of pants, one shirt, one kind of shoes, one vehicle, one couch, one house, &c. With the majority of the now-available “kabillion” choices thus regulated, one’d be more likely to pursue one’s singularity elsewhere, in made things, in selfish wanton inventive industry. Or so my reasoning goes, utopian of one. Or maybe it’s some of my vestigial Scottish spareness, stinginess. Faites simple, as Escoffier had it.) It is, though, somewhat intriguing to learn of, say, Steve Evans’s ponytail’d “blue-black” hair, or to read of somebody’s hair upcomb’s resembling the crest of a Steller’s jay.

Against Moxley’s stories, I think of Jonathan Williams, writing in The Independent about Ronald Johnson: “In the summer of 1961, RJ and I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the Hudson River in New York, some 1447 miles. Perfect training for poets: learning to attend to the names of birds and plants and stars and trees and stones.” And the next year walking “five weeks in the Lake District”: “On the Sunday of the weekend of the Cuban Missile Crisis the poets spent the day trying to locate the grave of Beatrix Potter in Near Sawrey and Kurt Schwitters in Ambleside—and found neither.” That nigh-solitary companionable amble within a world outside of human commerce, outside its meretricious human vapors is what comes fetching me. I think of Moxley’s reports of her crew’s readings—the ante of the “performative” constantly upped—and I wonder. Suspicious of performance, how it’s liable to become mere showy zaniness, covering a paucity of, oh, “heft.” Why do I recall downing a cous-cous merguez with a German friend, another student at the Alliance Française, at some cheap upstairs eatery in the Latin Quarter circa 1974—how he rather impishly announced to the waiter at the end of the repast that he’d found it “bien fait, bien servi” (neither being the case)—the whole a kind of mockery of politesse and the way it gets incorporated into formulaic language’d tidbits. The same boy’d once caused a complete loss of scholarly demeanor in me, announcing, in a practice round using the formula avoir peur de (to be afraid of): “J’ai peur du soleil” (“I am afraid of the sun”).

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Friday, October 05, 2007

La même chose


Odd to think that Stephen Crane’d be a mere four years older than Robert Frost. That spare pre-imagist verse—Crane call’d himself an “impressionist”—of Black Riders publish’d at age twenty-four. Louise Bogan—in a little book call’d Achievement in Ameican Poetry (1951), something I demob’d out of the cellar paperbacks yesterday, looking for Robbe-Grillet—Bogan calls Crane’s talent “natural and instinctive,” pointing to a combo of “initial awkwardness” and “early brilliance,” and hints that he “hardly developed.” (Which’d be about all one’d claim for any writer dead at twenty-eight.) I try to think of Crane, say, post-Pound, or amidst the The Masses cohort, or among the “proletarian” ’thirties writers, or writing about WWII.

It’s good to try to jump off the tracks of the thundering locomotive that is the innate historical (time) provincialism of the century, and the country, something “enormously and increasingly unavoidable” as one (oneself) participates (too) in the unending quotidian documentation of everything, so caught up in the vamping processional of now that one begins to assume a kind of pedigree regarding all one’s doings, one that scorns anything prior. So: it’s of some interest to note how Bogan, in a chapter call’d “Poetry at the Half-Century, 1939-1950,” rehearses the same marks of anxiety that apparently persist another half-century later. Her complaint: after the “richness and variety” of work that “exploded into being after 1912,” the epigones, the latecomers, “though generally far more informed and better equipped than their elders, found themselves functioning in a period of absorption, rather than in one of energetic projection.” She notes “a diminution of creative vitality,” “a stiffening of method,” “a drying out of emotion,” “a growth of self-consciousness,” “a return of skepticism and relative timidity,” a “tendency toward expertness and control,” and “a complete exhaustion of experimentalism.” The last, Bogan notes, “follows a natural sequence,” and proceeds to quote Eliot regarding the limits to any “extreme awareness and concern for language,” it being “something which must ultimately break down, owing to an increasing strain against which the human mind and nerves will rebel.” (A funny thing for a writer to say, even a nervous Nellie like the Possum.)

The paragraph that struck home, one I’d think apt (still!) in many of its particulars to the present:
Numerous young poets emerged during the forties. The works of some were brought on prematurely by the war; some still clung to Marxist dogma; others were pure experimentalists. Some moreover, were pedants; other merely learned and ambitious young men who had decided that the writing of poetry gave them prestige academic or otherwise. Very nearly all the members of this poetic generation functioned, to a greater or less degree, within the pervasive influence of the composite modern style—a style which was steadily returning, by degrees, to “form.” This style often served to cloak poverty of thought and immaturity of feeling. Thus, certain poets, by manipulating surfaces with skill, seemed more gifted than they actually were: they proved to be more fixated at childish emotional levels than a superficial examination of their writing had seemed to indicate.
That in 1951, just prior to the bust-out of the Beats. I like the Freudian “fixated”; I like the “composite modern style”—shorthand pejorative for what Bogan later terms “every trick of style,” probably akin to what people today mean by “burgeoning numbers of competing poetries” or the like—meaning, “exhaustion is pervasive and nobody knows what the fuck’s next.” I like the Platonic sigh of relief in “returning . . . to ‘form.’”

A few years later, in The New Yorker, when Bogan’s got the opportunity to see something different (the Allen anthology), she greets it with unfeign’d alarm, seeing the poems therein as largely a repetition of the earlier “1912” aberration. She writes: “History seems to have fallen in a heap upon the minds and sensibilities of many members of the latest American ‘school’ of poetry.” Bogan identifies that “school” as “a late and peculiarly American development of the post-Symbolist revolt, which brought in, very nearly fifty years ago, Dada and Surrealism,” (note how everything “other” than that magisterial unidentify’d “form” one “returns to” gets subsumed into a single “heap,” too, in Bogan’s version). And, following a veritable extravaganza of rhetorical fury (complaining of “the hitting, smashing, struggle, hallucination, and disorder” in the poems in The New American Poetry, and demanding, with no evident irony, “are many of them actually out of control?”), she asks “What degree of anarchy can be projected in poetry?” Answer, Bogan: “. . . when [poetry’s] principal tenets and accepted formal procedures are assaulted with utter vigor, this art of language does not merely change, it totally disappears.”

Is the upshot simply that adage-on-the-spot: “every old dog ain’t budgin’”? Where “dog” is a whole motley generation (every generation) convinced of its “advance”? (If not convinced of its “advance,” convinced its brave beleaguer’d steadfastness’ll not go unrecognized?) I don’t know. Everything repeats itself with fastidious lack of repercussion, that’s art’s cyclical self-twitting. Plus ça change . . . choristers, get ready to hum. In 1958—again, now, a half-century back—Bogan wrote (in a New Yorker review of the Hall-Simpson-Pack anthology): “Nowadays there is a widespread belief that close contact with academic life is dangerous for the creative artist; he is warned, on all sides, that any relationship with institutions of learning will cause his gifts to dwindle, if not totally to disappear. In spite of such warnings, poets of the younger generation have taken to the teaching profession in numbers, and some of the results of this association are coming to light.” Which is precisely true again today at the great institutions East, West, and New Coast alike. And the results, too: no different. Again, one sees poems “notably free of the coldly elaborate, the foolishly excited, and the gloomily bardic.” Again, one sees poems wherein “few rebellious notes are openly struck.” Yuh.

Louise Bogan, 1897–1970

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Into The Middle Room

A Door

Is zatrudnenie ostranenie’s beleaguer’d cousin, the one toss’d down the oubliette of history? I see it—the word—in a footnote in Shklovsky’s Energy of Delusion and recall nothing of it. “Impediment,” the note says. “Through an impeded form, the author presents the familiar objects of the real world in great intricacy in order to attract and hold his reader’s full attention.” (Sounds like Robbe-Grillet and the assort’d mecs of the nouveau roman, no?)

I go batting about in For a New Novel, stopping for a gander at the story of the reader who, paging quickly, skips all that’s merely descriptive only to find himself at the end of the book. I stop, too, to read about how “a famous Russian cartoon in which a hippopotamus, in the bush, points out a zebra to another hippopotamus: ‘You see,’ he says, ‘now that’s formalism.’” Robbe-Grillet: “if art is something, it is everything, which means that it must be self-sufficient, and that there is nothing beyond.” Meaning: its reality can only reside in its form.

Or, I pack it in early and begin reading Jennifer Moxley’s memoir, The Middle Room (Subpress, 2007), a funny piece of almost Jamesian ventriloquism, improbably, sublimely fussy—it concerns the late ’eighties after all—with a barely repress’d undercurrent of mirth. She revels most in coddled sentences and high style, high diction, unapologetically. Here, older brother Robert is teasing her with “polysyllabic” words he’s “applied” to her character—words out of a recently acquired OED:
Paradoxically, or perhaps I should say masochistically, the “big words” Robert used to psychologically torment me still managed to arouse my inquisitiveness. After all, one of these strange words could turn out to be a door to the magical country of grown-up life, that mysterious place onto which I had imaginatively flung my hopes like heavy cargo from a sinking ship for as long as I could remember! This explains why, to a minor extent, my curiosity kept me coming back for more; for just as desire is well served by hidden things, so too is the intellect tantalized by realms beyond its ken, and if in the former I exposed the mystery sooner than was probably wise, in the latter I engaged an infinite patience, preferring, as I most assuredly did, thinking I knew to actually knowing, two distinct states it has been the shock of my life to learn are mutually exclusive.
The mimickry is non-parodic, at least not wholly parodic, though it is aware of (and delights in) its own high artifice. Incorporating the tiny cliché’s of psychologism—“as long as I could remember,” “sooner than was probably wise,” “shock of my life,” &c.—and outsmarting them (exhausting them). I love the stray outbursts of the literary italicized.

And then, not mirth. Tragedy and its sorrow-thewy disconnects and aftermaths. With language inadequate to it (language is never adequate) that, nevertheless, fulfills its daunting charge—carrying us (wing’d Pegasus) down into sympathy, and soaring bountifully out, beyond, into the savourable realm of syntax, only partially aligned with its semantic burden. An uncanny and beautiful feat—one admires the fearless difficult telling, one is buoy’d up by the manners of it:
The next thing I knew I was there, a tiny walking figure beneath the very tall tress who, understanding my instability, offered me up a very fine specimen of a branch which I made for awhile my walking stick and then, as if commanded by some higher force, used to write a message to my father in the moist, dark, earth. As I wrote I became aware that my father was very close by, extant in the ambient air, and then he was gone, drifting unanchored as an errant leaf, all goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, swept off forever into the white February sky.
I suspect I will read The Middle Room too quickly—though its sentences beg for a lolling, an amble, the aimless gait of the saunterer (saunter that verb Thoreau try’d to place under the etymological tent of the earth itself, out of sans terre, without earth). I suspect, too, I shan’t be willing to talk about it “all that much,” isn’t that the thing about one’s fiercest contentments? On verra.

Jennifer Moxley