Friday, February 29, 2008

Three, Interrupt’d


I keep poking around in Haroldo de Campos’s Novas: Selected Writings (Northwestern University Press, 2007), mostly in the second half, the essays. Here’s the full first paragraph of something call’d “Translation as Creation and Criticism,” nimbly cornering the thinking of one Albrecht Fabri:
In 1958, the essayist Albrecht Fabri, professor at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany, wrote an article on the problem of artistic language for the journal Augenblick. In this article, which he entitled “Preliminary Notes to a Theory of Literature,” Fabri develops the thesis that “the essence of art is revealed by the fact that art is tautological, “ that works of art “do not mean but are.” In art, he says, “it is impossible to distinguish between what is representation and what is represented.” Then, turning to literature, he adds that what is unique to the language of a literary work is the “absolute phrase,” the phrase “which has no content other than its own structure” and “which only exists as its own instrument.” For this very reason, maintains Fabri, such an “absolute” or “perfect phrase” cannot be translated, because “translation begins with the possibility of separating word and meaning.” That is to say, translation is based on the “discrepancy between what is said and what is said.” For Fabri, then, translation represents the less perfect or the less absolute (or, it could be said, the less aesthetic) character of the phrase. It is in this sense that Fabri affirms that “all translation is criticism,” because translation “is born from the deficiency of the phrase,” from its insufficiency to be something by itself. “One does not translate what is language in a text, but what is not-language.” And, “both the possibility and the necessity of translation depend on the fact that sign and signified (signatum) may be separated and alienated from each other.”

Occluded the synaptic connectors, that did, for shortly thereafter I found myself drowsing off to the high camp misadventures of James McCourt’s 1975 Mawrdew Czgowchwz, “the diva of the moment.” Long week syndrome, most likely. In the McCourt, people say things like “His eyes, toots, are lupine-blue!” and are named things like “Halcyon Q. Paranoy.” It precedes its sequel, Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey (Turtle Point, 2007), itself hung out with a subtitle full of the menace of openendedness: “Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano. Authenticated by Persons Represented Therein. Book One.” Oddly enough, what some of the writing calls up, is that of another ongoing onslaught, Nathaniel Mackey’s From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Is it simply the “writing (about) performance”? Or is it the underpinning of something like “cosmic reach” both endow music with? Here’s McCourt:
Czgowchwz soared in flames to B naturals full-voice. There were involuntary screams, shock upon shock, fresh denials from every tier, but Czgowchwz sped forza allegretto, waltzing in circles until there was to be seen but a single swirl of jet lace pinwheeling in dervish abandon. She tore off the baguettes and flung them to the floor like a wanton hysteric at the final “gioir.” There was laughter, a febrile, ghostly cascade of it, answering the echo of Stameglio’s sobbing “croce e delizia.” The final measures were upon her; the optional E flat hung fire. She rose higher and wider by turns. The voice seared, shooting out of the the whirling smoke of her consumptive waltz. “Il mio pensier . . . il mio pensier . . . ah . . . ah . . . ah!” For an instant there was no sound; then something unheard since the creation—a Czgowchwz fortissimo A natural above high C the color of the core of the sun.
Here’s a fairly random parallel incident out of Mackey’s Djbot Baghostus’s Run, Penguin soloing on alto saxophone:
He took a preacherly tack which made the most of the possibilities for chastisement the equation of Nazi with not see opened up. Refusing to see, as did looking the other way, came under fire. Tending less toward rhapsody than rant, he put uptown flair and good feeling aside. He harangued and exhorted and even opted at points for a screw-loose, loquacious plea for open eyes, a return to Kenny’s wide-eyed squint. It was Penguin to the limit—a bittersweet biting sound à la Jimmy Lyons without Jimmy’s trepidatious phrasing. Penguin went for the big mouthfilling phrase, staightahead but syntactically loose enough to point to particulars where the need arose. The Greensboro killings came up . . .
Probably the overall rhythm (structure) of minuscule focal shifts, attending to tiny (or large) variations in sequence, is what made me align the two. Mackey’s assured underheave riffing on larger political forces and, often coterminously, local surface worrying (anagrammatics, punning, and the like)—absent in McCourt. Mackey’s tendency to exfoliate, pack in and pump up, a relentless surge of information, while not lacking in McCourt, is temper’d by a blithe air traceable (au fond) a history of leisure, ease? One’d never see a paragraph in Mackey like:
The weather did this and that. They all leafed through magazines. They told one another lies.

Certain snide recusant layabouts is
A phrase lift’d out of
Its plumb jointure of contextual
Immediacy in order to say
Something sure to arrive in
The instance of its saying.
And does, exactly the way
One finds oneself discussing a
Bundle of aesthetic information just
Dropped off, its sempiternal unexchangeability,
A clumsy way to put
It, surely. What I mean
Is, there is no other
Way of saying it, plotted
Or plotz’d, snickering or dish’d,
The story mounts up to
The sky, the scumbled sky.

Son House

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ron Padgett’s Reverdy

“Translating Is Pulling at the Teats of Literature”

Here’s an experiment (I am an “experimental” poet, quand meme!) Back in my scuffling days I translated a tiny batch of poems by Pierre Reverdy. Execrable, my French. Lazy, my ass. I “did” an independent study with a man named Ephim Fogel, a large and rather off-putting man, though I couldn’t say exactly why, something fierce about him, intimidating, sour, though he did, after all, kindly agree to work with me. I think I barely discuss’d my shabby clutch of Reverdy’s (I stuck to the tiniest “cubist” lyrics, avoiding the prose). Expeditious, my ploy. (Undoubtedly I’d finagled the independent study to replace credits lost through failing another course, likely that Bloomsbury one with the overly punitive not to say S / M professor?) Renovating, my memory. Why Reverdy? Because Ron Padgett’d written a poem call’d “Reading Reverdy” and put it in Great Balls of Fire? Shit-eating, my grin. Is that it? What about Frank O’Hara’s “My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy”? Or is that “merely” the reason Ron Padgett commenced to reading Reverdy and wrote that poem?
Reading Reverdy

The wind that went through the head left it plural.
The half-erased words on the wall of bread.
Someone is grinding the color of ears.
She looks like and at her.
A child draws a man and the earth
Is covered with snow.
He comes down out of the night
When the hills fall.
The line part of you goes out to infinity.
I get up on top of an inhuman voice.
Not my prefer’d Padgett poem, I’d never say that. Though I liked the idea of writing “reading” and I liked the stringing (up) together of tiny units. Today something like “The half-erased words on the wall of bread” reminds me of Charles Simic of a couple of years later, or the knockoffs of that “era”’s Simic (and boy, there were plenty!) even later than that. Which is the kind of funny thing unperturb’d time “does,” screwing around with memory and sequence: no reading the same “Reading Reverdy” twice. Today I rather attune myself to the ricochet-syntax of “She looks like and at her.”

Anyhow, my experiment. I dug out my copy of Plupart du temps, I: 1915-1922, lovely little Poésie / Gallimard pocket-sized edition, manufactured prior to the turn to yellowish newsprint. It contains the Poèmes en Prose that Padgett’s work’d up in the new Prose Poems (Black Square Editions / The Brooklyn Rail, 2007), Pierre Reverdy’s first book. I translated two rapidly-select’d pieces without looking into the Padgett. Here’s one:
Bruits de Nuit

      Au moment où les chevaux passaient, la suspension trembla. Le plafond menaçait de se pencher à droite, contre nos têtes; mais les fenêtres restaient d’aplomb avec le ciel, et l’on voyait le paysage nocturne.
      Il n’y avait plus de hiboux dans les ruines, plus de rayon de lune parmi les arbres, mais une cheminée d’usine et—autour—des maisons dont les toits avaient l’air de grandir.
      Et les chevaux—dont on entendait les pas précipités—transportaient dans la nuit complice des fourgons de mort en métal.

Night Noise

      Just when the horses went by, the foundation shook. The ceiling threatened to lean right, right against our heads, but the windows stayed plumb against the sky, and we saw the nightscape.
      No more owls in the ruins, no more moonlight through the trees, only one factory smokestack and—around about—houses whose roofs seemed to grow bigger.
      And the horses—whose quick hoofbeats we heard—dragged along with the complicity of night the clanking carriers of the dead.
Here’s the other:

      La rue est toute noire et la saison n’a pas laissé de traces. J’aurais voulu sortir et l’on retient ma porte. Pourtant là-haut quelqu’un veille et la lampe est éteinte.
      Tandis que les becs de gaz ne sont plus que des ombres, les affiches se poursuivent le long des palissades. Écoute, l’on n’entend le pas d’aucun cheval. Cependant un cavalier géant court sur une danseuse et tout se perd en tournant derrière un terrain vague. La nuit seule connaît l’endroit où ils se réunissent. Dès le matin ils auront revêtu leurs couleurs éclatantes. A présent tout se tait. Le ciel cligne des yeux et la lune se cache entre les cheminées. Les agents muets et sans rien voir maintiennent l’ordre.


      The street’s completely black and the season’s left no trace. I’d’ve liked to go out and someone slammed my door. Plus, someone up there’s doing surveillance and the light’s out.
      As long as the streetlights stay dark, the show posters’ll continue down the length of the fence. Listen: there’s not the hoofbeat of a single horse. Even so, an enormous cavalier runs off after a dancer and everything ends up pell-mell turning behind an empty lot. Only night knows the rendezvous spot. By morning they’ll’ be dressed again in the usual explosive colors. For now, everything stops. The sky shuts its eyes and the moon hides behind the chimneys. Mute cops who see nothing maintain order.
Okay. Rush’d, and larking a tinch. (Larking, my weakness.) Now to examine the Padgett translations:
Night Sounds

      Just as the horses went by, the ceiling lamp shook. The ceiling threatened to tilt to the right, against our heads, but the windows remained plumb with the sky and you saw the nocturnal countryside.
      There were no more owls in the ruins, no more moonbeams along the trees, but a factory chimney and—all around—the houses whose roofs seemed to get bigger.
      And the horses, whose quick hoofs were heard, were pulling the metal trailers for corpses through the conspiring night.


      The street is completely dark and the season has left no trace. I would have liked to have gone out and my door was held. Nevertheless up there someone is up late and the lamp is out.
      When the gas jets are just shadows, the posters follow each other along the fence. Listen, you hear not one horse. Nevertheless a giant horseman races along on a dancing woman and it’s all lost turning behind an empty lot. Only the night knows the place where they are reunited. First thing in the morning they will be dressed again in their bright colors. Right now everything is quiet. The sky blinks and the moon is hiding between the chimneys. The silent policemen maintain order and see nothing.
A couple of boners, natch. Scanning Padgett’s remarks about translating Reverdy, I note two things. He writes (encountering Reverdy’s work in France in 1965) “I loved its austerity, its spookiness, and what I imagined to be its cubism.”If there’s an obvious first failure to my experiment, it’s in choosing the spooky over the austere. (I like that “imagined to be its cubism.” For thirty years, say, I have heard people talk about Reverdy as a “cubist” poet, and for thirty years I have inwardly reject’d that as buncombe. Due to my total ability to fathom what it could possibly mean.) Too, Padgett notes (usefully) that “Reverdy was a modernist, but he was not one for giving effects.” So: “silent policemen,” not “mute cops.” So, the necessary humility of the translator. So, a note I made earlier in the evening—“Isn’t that what translating is for, to “get up on top of an inhuman voice”?—may need a dressing down.

Some participants of the first reading of Désir attrapé par la queue, Picasso’s theatrical farce. Standing, left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cécile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Louise Leiris (Les Deux Toutous), Zanie Aubier (La Tarte), Picasso, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir (La Cousine). Sitting: Sartre (Le Bout rond), Albert Camus (Director), Michel Leiris (Le Gros Pied), Jean Aubier (Les Rideaux) and Kazbek, Picasso’s Afghan hound.
(Photograph by Brassaï, 16 June 1944)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


A Wall (Conglomerate and Cut)

One of Ezra Pound’s urban planning proposals (1928): “To the North side of the city is the great wind-wall, open in summer like the slats of a blind, closed in winter, made of some light vitreous matter, possibly enforced with steel fibre so some metallic filament giving it toughness.”

One reference to Spengler found in Pound, in “Murder by Capital” (1933): “Twenty-five years ago ‘one’ came to England to escape Ersatz; that is to say, whenever a British half-wit expressed an opinion, some American quarter-wit rehashed it in one of the ‘respectable’ American organs. Disease is more contagious that health. England may be growing American in the worst sense of that term. The flagrant example is that of receiving Spengler instead of Frobenius. I can’t conceive of Spengler’s being the faintest possible use in any constructive endeavour. Frobenius is a bitter pill for the Anglo Saxon. He believes that when a thing exists it probably has a cause.”

(My ‘respectable’ American organ.)

The kind of bumptious night of night’s conceit, its refusal to hand over the goods. One frets and fossicks, picking through the cast-off regalia of someone else’s life. Outisde the wind is mounting a misadventure against the hang of a shutter. Once slips fictively into a letter scrawl’d by an eight-year-old some thirty years back and bound haphazardly into a notebook, handsewn, bound in boards, used tympan paper off a Chandler & Price for covers, big muscular script, my friend Mary says you look like a cow. The remaining pages blank, color of vernix. I pull down the fat Roselli and type

May’s in me, conveniently mountainous. Sell everything—
A solid din prep’d against wind, twice-tetch’d and insular, richly
Which is just about all I can “take” of homonymic translation, it moves me not. I pour out Pound by the thimbleful, it, whole redundancies of Pound! (Think how megalomania—there are examples “extant” today—is oft-accompanied by a constant hammering, ideas (terminologies) bang’d like iron stakes into the froze-up earth, repeatedly, endlessly . . .) Yuh.

A man named Sibley Hoobler tells a story about Mozart’s starling:
Mozart’s starling picked up a phrase the composer had written but changed a G-natural to a G-sharp. Mozart wrote “Das war schön!” (That was beautiful!) in his notebook. The musical phrase appears at the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453.
Flock’d, the term is “a murmuration of starlings” due to the constant off-key broken whittering, clucks, churrs, and fractures. Rusty gate noises. After Mozart’s starling expired, he wrote a poem beginning “Hier ruht ein lieber Narr, / Ein Vogel Staar . . .” (Here lies a darling fool, a starling . . .)

Ezra Pound, 1958
(Photographs by Richard Avedon)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

With + Stand No. 1

A Wall (An Ear for Business)

Editor Dan Thomas-Glass sent me a copy of the first issue of With + Stand, a striking thing to pull out of an envelope, big format (eight-and-a-half by eleven) sheets with glare yellow covers (simple stencil and spatter in black), and bound with a double wrap of red DANGER tape, adhered with a solid cross of shiny black duct tape. My response: similar to seeing the first issue of No: A Journal of the Arts with (it, too) its stencil and X’s, its vibrancy and will’d mess (running, No did, directly counter its high dollar print and binding job). Staking one’s aesthetic to open defiance, rigorous refusal of the usual. (Or: puckering up to the Zeitgeist’s latest D.I.Y. embouchure, mouthing a rag-tag independent ditty: the bonus being, it’s a mighty cheap way to go.) I like it. I like how it is manufactured, the tape, by Empire. Writing bound up like criminal evidence, like a crime scene, that black tape with all the electrical insouciance of a bomb, a bomb’s “safety catch.”

Title page. One reads: “[Sys tem (noun): 1619, ‘the whole creation, the universe,’ from L.L. systema ‘an arrangement, system,’ from Gk. systema ‘organized whole, body,’ from syn- ‘together’, (sun- With) + root of histanai ‘cause to Stand’].” And, interpreting it all: “[ systems | poetics ]” And, one supposes, sighingly, that if one is no longer in the mechanical age—and one is not—one ought upgrade to a systemic way of thinking, and leave poor old Doc Williams out of it, though is there a big difference between the poem’s being “a small (or large) machine made of words” and being a “system”? Maybe. Williams’s insistence that “there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant” and that it is “pruned to a perfect economy” bespeaks a kind of numeric of wholes, a simpler arithmetic. Opposed to an integral bounce and slough, post-Euclidean planar stretches, waste itself covet’d by the system’s “beaters.” That is to say, the “era” allows (calls forth) more slippage and mix, higher complexities begetting higher dross. Is Williams’s requirement that the writer only “make clear the complexities of his perceptions in the medium given to him by inheritance, chance, accident or whatever” no longer optimum dictum? Williams: “There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning, in which they most resemble the machine, to give language its highest dignity, its illumination in the environment to which it is native. Such war . . . is continuous.” Dignity, disdain, snipped off the same rootstock. Just the way “system” itself used to be a dirty word, straits, channels, the draft, &c.

With + Stand No. 1’s contributors: Michael Scharf, Dan Thomas-Glass, Juliana Spahr, Derek Henderson, Megan Kaminski, Joshua Clover, Ben Lerner, Ange Mlinko, Christopher Nealon, Rodrigo Toscano, and Timothy Kreiner. Order’d according to stock market fluctuations off an assign’d alphabetical origin (I’d wager Michael Scharf got pegged to Microsoft). Systems. To attend to NASDAQ is to become NASDAQ. A little closer look at some of With + Stand’s “picks.”

Michael Scharf: a negligible mishmash of xerox’d debris—news clippings, mostly legible back-of-an-envelope scribbles (family history quotient fill’d), found snapshots (banal standard physiognomy input), language worksheet (“Full derivation with an opaque vowel”; “redundancy rules”).

Juliana Spahr: Readers of Spahr’s The Transformation’ll see a similarly gussy’d up frolic of gamine-eyed repetitions in what’s label’d “from The Tradition.” In lieu of “they,” one reads of “me” and a various “not really me”; in lieu of post-colonial gasp-adventures amongst the Hawaiians, one reads of chemical flurries and fallouts amongst the post-ecological multinationals. So:
With the grammatical error of me and not
really me I had entered into a relationship
with a not really me that was constantly
replenishing as me lies there, me with not
really me, there, not really me, drinking and
on me’s breast the curls of not really me . . .
moves with bland duty-trudge into a song (poetry is song) of—
really me, the song that goes like Salutations
to brominated fire retardants of Koppers
Ind., goes like Salutations to water / oil
repellent paper coating of 3M, goes like
Salutations to wiper blades of Asahi, goes
like Salutations to bike chain lubricant of
Clariant International, goes like Salutations
to wire and cable insulation of Daikin, goes
like Salutations to pharmaceutical packaging
of Dupont . . .                                                            
The whole reminding one of a line out of Spengler, who speaks of how the “professional and inartistic sort of historical research . . . with its collecting and arranging of mere data, amounts for all its ingenuity to little more than the giving of a cachet to the banal-incidental.”

Joshua Clover’s “City” is an ode render’d in pure irony, a mock-lyrical outburst with Eliotic echoes of the “Unreal City,” with Mike Davis chic sociological putterings, with Apollinairean zonal nods, with Situationist “memory of public space” nudges and murmurs, with pat-refs to Lil Wayne, to M.I.A. For all the goop of theory and branding, it reads oddly like a paean to spring break, that particular academic ritual:
O Opulent Spring just a week away!

Spring where we go out into the system of systems.

Go out into the nodes and the pathways and the sun-green sun.

Out into our city where we came to live in close contagion with beloveds and strangers and neighbors-who-art-a-drag and so finally became organic.

Into our downtown which at evening empties of people and becomes form without content.

We meditate on pure form it arouses the most poetic emotions which turn at once to become dry motes of content.
Unsustainable breathlessness.

Ben Lerner’s two pieces, each titled “Futurism Never Happened” (increasingly common ploy, or tic)—they, too, seemingly adapt a wonder-mannerism, the cataloguing (interminable) voice of the precocious kid:
And the buildings went on reflecting the weather. And reflecting the buildings reflecting the weather. And the elms held their place, the infected elms. And the distance, bitter at being visible. And the distance, centralized and rectilinear. As our walks went on without us. Our beach scenes and our kitchen scenes. Our launches and their lithographs. As stars fell and burrowed. As meat grew terribly dear. And the bombing went on without us, the bombs with their infantile appetite for color. And the workers displaced from the city center. And the center displaced from the city . . .
With a difference? Typing it, I begin to perceive a modulation to the voice, a more-attractive variance, hint of authentic weariness, how our lives go along with no blessing, no accord. Something to impinge against, pierce through the static of the period style.

Enough. Corrupt systems thrive (and count on) high noise to signal ratios—disinformation, glut, chatter, “anything to keep the populace distract’d, minds off the problems of the day.” What I fear—brought out by considering With + Stand’s first issue, in some ways an applaudable first—is that we ironists, chatterers, media hounds, collectors of civic debris and popular curios, we norteamericano poets of the relentless ever-burgeoning imperium—that we do no more than add noise into an already noise-stopped-up system.

With + Stand No. 1, Binding and Cover


Study of the tactile modes,
Tongue to palette ribbed like
A poulterer’s poultry, that kind
Of repetition that ends in
Farce, or a poulet farci,
A hen stuff’d with a
Clove-stuck onion, tiny Sputnik
Of the gorge getting up,
Mere futurity seeming to stick
In its craw. Do you
Collect anything? I didn’t think
So. It’s cumbersome to collect,
Think of Hölderlin in that
Small room overlooking the north-
Draining Neckar, fingering the slack
Keys of a noiseless piano,
Its strings cut with wire-
Cutters. He calls himself Mr.
Librarian, or Scardanelli—two names
Is not a collection. He
Makes a marginal human niche,
Weds blue to sugar, neo-
Parsimony to wind-sausage, concrete
Syntax to urine-turbidity, does
Sophocles in words color’d red.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Spengler, Walser, Middleton

Tilt and Continuum

Sunday with its twitches and misfires, a plenary, a ruse. It dribbles out inconsequentially, spent badly, exhaust’d to no end. What Sunday’s for: blowout of surplus time in denial of time’s pinch’d economy. (I hate that kind of talk.) One drifts in and out of Spengler all sunny morning:
For primitive man the word “time” can have no meaning. He simply lives, without any necessity of specifying an opposition to something else. He has time, but he knows nothing of it. All of us are conscious, as being aware, of space only, and not of time. Space “is,” (i.e. exists, in and with our sense-world)—as a self-extension while we are living the ordinary life of dream, impulse, intuition and conduct, and as space in the strict sense in the moments of strained attention. “Time,” on the contrary, is a discovery, which is only made by thinking. We create it as an idea or notion and do not begin till much later to suspect that we ourselves are Time, inasmuch as we live.
And, there with the coverlets in a jumble, the dog sprawling, one tries to insert oneself into timelessness, a world of pure presence (coverlet, dog, sunny slat-work against the wall), a world of individual suspension in a crowd’d morass of the mythological. (Thinking of Spengler’s talk of culture funerary difference: the Greek tendency to torch the earthly remains et c’est tout, versus the Egyptian one of anchoring each deceased to a compleat and accurate and history-making chain, genealogy’s time-binding and boundary.) There’s such a welter and weave to The Decline of the West that it is difficult to pluck the adjudicable quote, disentangle the apparent argument, one reads in a shine (dimming here and there) of seeing, spellbound. One becomes willing—hard thing in a sneering maleficent time—to use a words like “destiny” and “soul.” Spengler, on the opposition between the Destiny Idea (demanding “life-experience and not scientific experience, the power of seeing and not that of calculating, depth and not intellect” and the Causality Principle (“the reasonable, the law-bound, the describable, the badge of our whole waking and reasoning experience”):
In the Destiny-idea the soul reveals its world-longing, its desire to rise into the light, to accomplish and actualize its vocation. To no man is it entirely alien, and not before one has become the unanchored “late” man of the megalopolis is original vision quite overpowered by matter-of-fact feeling and mechanizing thought. Even then, in some intense hour, the lost vision comes back to one with terrible clearness, shattering in a moment all the causality of the world’s surface. For the world as a system of causal connexions is not only a “late” but also a highly rarefied conception and only the energetic intellects of high Cultures are capable of possessing it—or perhaps we should say, devising it—with conviction. The notion of causality is coterminous with the notion of law: the only laws that are, are causal laws. But just as there lies in the causal, according to Kant, a necessity of the thinking consciousness and the basic form of its relation to the essence of things, so also, designated by the words destiny, dispensation, vocation, there is a something that is an inevitable necessity of life. Real history is heavy with fate but free of laws. One can divine the future (there is, indeed, a certain insight that can penetrate its secrets deeply) but one cannot reckon it. The physiognomic flair which enables one to read a whole life in a face or to sum up whole peoples from the picture of an epoch—and to do so without deliberate effort or “system”—is utterly remote from all “cause and effect.”
And, later: “The stiff mask of causality is lifted by mere ceasing to think.” Akin to how the poems require a trance and trust, the throwing of oneself on the mercy of one’s own brash physiognomic compass, sound-board and gut-guttural high-dudgeon. Or how a novel’ll bring history down out of the clouds with a punch, cleaning the clock. A bewitching, a stray walloping verity. Think of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, the runaway in school. How Spengleresque he seems!
I have sold my watch, so as to buy tobacco for cigarettes. I can live without a watch, but not without cigarettes, that is shameful, but a necessity. Somehow I must get some money or I shan’t have any clean clothes to wear. Clean collars are things I can’t do without. A person’s happiness depends, yet does not depend, on such things. Happiness? No. But one should be proper. Cleanliness alone is a joy. I’m just talking. How I hate all the right words! Today the Fräulein cried. Why? Halfway through the class, tears suddenly poured from her eyes. It strangely moves me. Anyway, I shall have to keep my eyes peeled. I like listening for something that doesn’t want to make a sound. I pay attention, and that makes life more beautiful, for if we don’t have to pay attention there really is no life.
The obverse (or parallel) of the dislike of “all the right words” is, Christopher Middleton notes, Jakob’s blithe (or radical) claim, “Sometimes I say things that surpass my own understanding!” And Walser translator Middleton himself, just to turn one back into history (there is nothing else), in a stunning short prose piece call’d “Life Force”—out of Crypto-Topographia: Stories of Secret Places (Enitharmon, 2002)—insists on history’s nigh-inescapable raptures (which, not unlike the scuba diver’s rapture of the deep, presents a possible world-terminus, a static “heavenly” thing, in denial of its constant becoming, tempting the swimmer to shed air-tanks in an act of joinery), mankind’s dream of entering—and being still’d by— history:
Life Force

Only once did erstwhile signals officer Weismann, from under a wave of white hair, tell of the ‘charcoal faces’, noses burned off, ears burned off, brought to the hospital ship from the torpedoed cruiser Princeton while the landing on one of those little Philippine islands went forward—feet blown off, men with splintered stump legs and arms, and the medicos busy with them, chopping and sawing, amazed by the erections, and a navy doctor stooped on the steel deck to stroke and stoke the big stiff penis of the gunner they’d laid out on a gurney, the most he could do for him now. Then silence. Fingers pulling at his underlip, near to sobbing, as if the comparison, an old afterthought of his, even while he spoke no longer glossed or blunted the pictures in his memory: No pleasure in that. It’s like the figures with erections on a Greek amphora: the satyrs dancing; no pleasure, but the rapture.

Typing that whilst the calculable storage bin in the brainbox is busy trying to adjust itself to the input: Robert Walser (1878-1956, he collapsed in the snow on the grounds of the asylum at Herisau (Switzerland) he’d enter’d in 1933—“I’m not here to write, but to be mad,” he told Swiss writer Carl Seelig) is a near-perfect contemporary of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955, he never went to Switzerland, or hardly anywhere else—but then, neither did Walser, who has a character somewhere saying: “I’m staying here. It’s nice, just to stay. Does nature go abroad? Do trees travel, to acquire greener leaves elsewhere and then to come back and show themselves off?”), and Franz Kafka (1883-1924, admirer of Walser’s work—first collection in 1904—even before he became Kafka). What would Kafka say to Stevens, or Stevens to Kafka, or Walser to either?

The Death of Robert Walser

Friday, February 22, 2008

John Tipton and Sophocles’s Ajax

A Wall (Pock and Barricado)

Still about Ajax, and translations, interpretive, “off,” traduced, “translucinated.” The man I neglect’d in yesterday’s tiny list: Pound. Isn’t that where such things begin? (Pour nous.) In a foreword to John Tipton’s version, Stanley Lombardo writes: “Aeschylus is famously reported to have said that Greek tragedy consisted of leftovers from the great banquet of Homer.” All day barbarity: to rehash that into something like “our twentieth century poetry in translation consists of storm debris of the hurricane named Ezra.” Think: even Robert Lowell had Imitations. Is it Pound, though, or the “American” character at work, that half-ass’d lingually dumb ox who plows deep, sows whatever’s “at hand,” and snorts at the critical barb? Edmund Wilson’s got an early sketch (1922) of Pound that puts him up as “incurable provincial . . . driven to Europe by a thirst for romance and color that he could scarcely have satisfied in America.” For Wilson, Pound is “tainted with an obsession . . . : the frantic desire to flee as far from Idaho as possible, the itching to prove to Main Street that he has extirpated it from his soul.” His deficiencies are those of “experience and feeling”; “it is all too often exclusively the Europe of books in which he finds himself forced to continue to live”; hence, the “continual recourse to translation.” And, there too, a “fatal inadequacy,” a “lameness.” And, one’d maintain: a permission. (“The point? Freedom.” Is what Clark Coolidge says.)

What John Tipton’s done with that permission he details in an afterword call’d “An Acounting”:
This translation uses a counted line. That is, the length of each line is determined by the number of words in the line. Further, I have constrained the number of words per line to match the number of metrical feet found in the Greek. . . . Consequently, in rendering the speeches, I use six words to the line. . . . The translation has as many lines as does the original . . . Essentially I have taken the play into English at an exchange rate of one English word for every metrical foot in the Greek.
Too, Tipton’s fuddled the Chorus “into a kind of disturbed unconscious to the play itself” by means of “two deliberate distortions”:
First, I eliminated any use of first person in the chorus to disembody it. And second, I exaggerated the psychological elements and distressed the syntax into a slightly disjointed raving. The result is a sinister, nagging voice that punctuates the action.
A random sample page or so, the “effete Menalaus” and Teucer, half-brother to Ajax and replacement after the latter’s suicide:
Menalaus: How will I break divine laws?

Teucer: If you don’t allow him burial.

Menalaus: No, he declared war against me.

Teucer: When did Ajax ever confront you?

Menalaus: You know we hated each other.

Teucer: You rigged a vote against him.

Menalaus: The voters rejected him, not me.

Teucer: You sure made it look legal.

Menalaus: You’re starting to piss me off.

Teucer: Oh, really?
                                      Welcome to the club.

Menalaus: I’ll say one thing: no burial.

Teucer: Hear this: he will be buried.

Menalaus: I once know a real loudmouth
who wanted to sail in winter.
When the weather started getting rough,
he didn’t seem quite so talkative
and was much easier to tolerate.
Your yammering reminds me of him.
We just need a little storm
to get some quiet around here.

Teucer: I once knew a fool myself
who enjoyed seeing other people hurt.
One day, somebody resembling me,
with a temper like mine, said,
“Don’t insult the dead, my friend,
if you do, you’ll regret it.”
Right to the unfortunate man’s face.
You remind me of that man
quite a bit.
                      You get it?
I like the up-tempo velocity here, hinting at blood-quickening, mounting anger, notable particularly in the two longer speeches. I think the six-word ploy is somewhat less exhilarating in the one-line banter—it’s got the effect at times of diminishing distinctions between the antagonists. Too, it’s difficult (with such a constraint) to maintain “register” in the diction: to my ear there’s a big difference between the lovely naturalness of “You’re starting to piss me off” and Menalaus’s subsequent, rather finicky “I’ll say one thing: no burial.” Quibbles, quite likely. (I did wonder about the possibility of assigning different word counts to the various characters—a way of turning the emphases.)

A tiny glimpse at the “Chorus of Sailors” (here, opening the second movement, just after Ajax’s self-inflict’d death):
hurt heaps hurt here
left right
left where it will
will it learn the place?
dropped it
dropped can’t find it be found
half a boat’s oars in sync
with what?
beach to the west is stippled
by tracks
that fade like sores fill eyes
when stares the sun so much
it’s plain what follows the man
Which is lovely, mysterious, stunned, groping. Tentative and sure à la fois. Sense of disembodied voices rising up out of blood-soak’d (Ajax’s madness is signal’d in the opening scene by him in a frenzy of slaughtering herds and herdsmen) darkness, the old order (“left right / left where it will”) completely sunder’d.

The cover photograph of a collection of freshly-butcher’d sheep heads mount’d against a white wall—by the Israeli Nadav Kander (“Severed Heads, Faroe Island,” 2006)—is formidable, mesmerizing, right. (A detail: inside the front flap is what looks like a towel, hung up too, shaped by accident or design to resemble another head, a haunting-comical touch.) Design by the inimitable Jeff Clark, who stretch’d down the j of the title-page Ajax to resemble a knife.

John Tipton


Light’d a black conical bidi up, Monsieur Melmac Fungible did, answering
To some higher calling. Suppose the sanctimonious retrograde gauging this backwater
Port of no call didn’t kick in for once, would the
Fairways look any different? Or put the fumigatory hoses back atop
The plinths they got down off, negligent, sheer, platitudinously mouthing off
For the benefit of some corpus of lies, order to maintain.
Sans culottes repudiators. Stevedores impudiques. Sad havocs and vatics. Broils.
Two suddenly-gone-sour-on featurettes of early twenty-first century
Grunt kingdoms, hanging a ‘rhino’ construct’d out of a toaster oven
Off the gun-end of a tank. Hit man, my ass.
Lift’d a block’d comical bidet up, Mr. Melmoth Fungoball did, swearing.

Pestering (that is, plaguing) the question of what a cross between Ivy Compton-Burnett and Clark Coolidge’d look like. Not like that. I like Coolidge’s prefatory statement to On the Nameways, how in “an empty moment” when he’d begun to think he’d “run out and had no more to do” he “found lines coming” and follow’d then “into short poems, strange to see, indicating I know not.” I like the brash lack of intent. Though it intervenes, soon enough:
Eventually I began writing them while watching movies (from Hopalong Cassidy Enters to Last Year at Marienbad) on satellite TV, a practice reminding me of de Kooning drawing with his left hand, Guston pen in hand watching the Watergate coverage, and of course Kerouac scribing his Blues. The point? Freedom. An overcoming of the obstacles erected by any conceptions of the poem.
And Compton-Burnett? Trigger’d by a Guardian note how difficult it is to find the novels now in England. One of O’Hara’s oddballs. Novels of nothing but dialogue. A woman named Kay Dick in an interview prodding her:
      You catch your people terribly unawares, don’t you?

      Oh, I think one has to.

      There’s a lot of abandon in your people. They don’t mind what they say about themselves, do they?

      No, they don’t. If you’re writing in dialogue I think that’s necessary. If you cut the dialogue out there’s not much left.
That fierce catching “unawares” and in “abandon”: it’s there that Compton-Burnett and Coolidge marry. “Small analgesic membrane tocsins / one foot on the shore / we’ll have to go home now Brainy / the capes no longer open,” says Ivy. “The occasion of Ridley’s discomfiture is spoiled by its tragedy,” says Clark. Each more honest than the other.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Blubber and Connect

A Wall (Brace and Hollow)

That moon’s got dents and blemishes, and is swoll’d
Up low down where a fat cheek’d be. Its
Constancy is mostly a matter of literature making strident
Ongoing claims out of various affinities, degree by boisterous
Degree. Paring, sickle, chalice, boat, ballast, blubber, only connect.
That’s the way it is tonight in the unreconciled
Lurch of night. By morning it’ll be over there
In the west, looking back at its arc, repartee,
And trajectory before dowsing itself in yonder blue pines.
Yonder: see hither and yon. Yonder day breaks ‘rimming
The rock-row.’ In the absence of my pointable
Arm, or finger. Result of a breakdown in presence,
Meaning I am here (in Levi’s, in cahoots with
The inhospitable wilding air, banging a quarterstave-sized stick
Convulsively and repetitiously into the ice ruts that span
Out hard and alee around about) and not there.
And all that ‘remains’ is this mutilated, incomplete mockery
Of speech, broken shield against the evaporable night’s going.
Words: see ‘The nasty yo-necked, cat-hammed, good
For nothing brutes.’ Withholders and turnstiles, uncontrollable in frank
Unreserved itch, conspicuous veerers, honeycombs, snits. Do not do.

Just flapping my (mostly gum) choppers there, impotent as a fish in a foam-fraught cascade aleaping. Startlingly vacant I am. Read some of John Tipton’s pared-down interpretation of Sophocles’s Ajax (Flood Editions) last night. Try’d to number similar recent feats (Tipton mentions Christopher Logue’s stunning versions of The Iliad and Zukofsky’s Catullus “cats” as predecessors). There’s Lisa Jarnot’s work with The Iliad, Tim Atkins’s Horace, Susan Landers’s Covers riffs off Dante, some of Anne Carson perhaps. What else? The epigrammatic “traductions” of Alexandra Papaditsas and Kent Johnson’s terrific The Miseries of Poetry. Turning back to redo the standards of the bygone empires, to turn such against the rot-vitals of the new. Idle note of vacant yob. Here, come thump my empty brainbox. There. No, there.

Willie Dixon, “Bassology,” 1966

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jasper Berne’s Starsdown

A Wall (Fume and Whisker)

Theodor Adorno, in Minima Moralia, under the rubric of Juvenal’s error (notably referring to “Juvenal’s remark difficile est satyras non scribere: it is difficult not to write satire”), retorts that it is “Difficult to write satire,” for though the “situation . . . needs more than any ever did,” it today “makes a mockery of mockery.” Adorno:
The medium of irony has itself come into contradiction with truth. Irony convicts its object by presenting it as what it purports to be; and without passing judgement, as if leaving a blank for the observing subject, measures it against its being-in-itself. It shows up the negative by confronting the positive with its own claim to positivity. It cancels itself out the moment it adds a word of interpretation. In this it presupposes the idea of the self-evident, originally of social resonance. Only when a compelling consensus of subjects is assumed, is subjective reflection, the performance of the conceptual act, superfluous.
Which sounds rather like some claims made for a kind of “writerly” poetry: ideologically manner’d commonplaces cross’d with an idea-free incendiary device, toss’d out into the middle of a “public” space. Adorno again:
The impossibility of satire today should not be blamed, as sentimentality is apt to do, on the relativism of values, the absence of binding norms. Rather, agreement itself, the formal a priori of irony, has given way to universal agreement of content. As such it presents the only fitting target for irony and at the same time pulls the ground from under its feet. Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared.
So goeth “damaged life” in the West circa 1946-47, back beyond the present “era” a half-century plus. By accident, browsing the dogpatch, I uncover’d a copy, too—as if intend’d, as if meant—of Jasper Bernes’s Starsdown (Ingirumimusnocteetconsumimurigni, 2007). Turns out Adorno’s up in there, too. In some lines of a poem titled “Every Star Will Be in its Place”:
It’s 1940 again. It’s Theodor Adorno again
Thrown from the unmoving train into the speeding
Carousel of the basin, under a crush of tuberculars

And aspirations, slow cancers, bad teeth.
Terza rima! An infernal machine
Twirls its baton outside Kaiser Steel.

And the winner is . . .
And continuing a page later with a kind of Adornoesque riffing, complete with pratfalls of figures losing grounds:
The naïve thought of a return to naïveté
Not naïve enough to cure us of this radiocast
Ratiocination, split odds.

Pictures without images or images without pictures,
Form so deeply abstracted that it’s formless,
Chains us to the comic

Strip of statistical averages, mannikins in a streetcar.
Which is probably accurate enough, an apt enough representing of the book’s rigging and trajectory. There’s a skillful comic chain’d to the mainmast, statistically above average; there’s a fine phoneme-jumbling ear (a lot of sound-boss’d reversal-constructions along the lines of “interminable, suede desuetude” and “fragrant / vagrancies of Vanity Fair and “camouflage architecture a plage or plague” and “a slave salve, a valvéd delve”); there’s gobs of simulacræ publicitaires ad-jism, that cloud of Eliotic “yellow fog” that rubs itself against us in the twenty-first century, mostly in the form of mock names of things—“Dasein Does Dallas,” “vodka Cosmos at The Regrettable / Incident,” a murder weapon call’d a “Sigmund Freud letter-opener,” a place call’d “Revolution in Paris,” others “the Mill of Sighs and the Institute for the Study of Pain.” Sort of stand-up comedy for the post-Situationist crowd, somesuch particular groupuscule kiting aloft its own “universal agreement of content.” That is to say: there’s a knowing “like winky” to it all that precludes any grit-sense of struggle, any honest anger. “Double Future (1957)” begins:
Through the errorscope, Miss America’s smoothing
the scabrous backfill. In the foyer, aspirin-white aspirants

blench an inch or two and / handfeed our amputees
firstlings of filet mignon / equivalent to their prostheses.

Today’s motto: as is.

It is Lawyer Hour, yessed past all resemblance
to the world we bought high and sold low.
In another corner of the exclusive                   Room, the experimental

and financier-photographers trade bests: a hole in the shape of being-there
in the lobby of International
                              Flavors and Fragrances.

A zero-letter word for truth; a three-fingered
hand (stubs, thumbs)
looming in the lens’ there, there. . . .
And ends a page or so later, its gestural cleverness (“Life’s little Houdinis precisely sue”) and global-reaching (“outsourced phonesex”) high irony diminishing not a whit:
Tragicomic booster kit: $24.
Ontological vaccine: $155.50.
Dick: $300.

Datum of maelstrom, ash of egress; the smallest size, the biggest bite.

A plastic Oscar, your DNA all over it.
How distant is that, finally, from Mr. Robinson with terrible (laughable) knowingness saying to Dustin Hoffman’s confused-about-the-future Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967): “One word. . . . ‘Plastics.’” Not too. And of course everything is marketable, highbrow and lowbrow, in particular comedic routines. The soothing (reassuring, “everything’s okay”) there, there . . . is no different from the Steinian there, there . . . of the Oakland’s gone, total nullity set. Irony is the “as is.” Adorno:
The gesture of the unthinking That’s-how-it-is is the exact means by which the world dispatches each of its victims, and the transcendental agreement inherent in irony becomes ridiculous in face of the real unanimity of those it ought to attack. Pitted against the deadly seriousness of total society, which has absorbed the opposing voice, the impotent object earlier quashed by irony, there is now only the deadly seriousness of comprehended truth.

Cold conk’d out the Lumina, alors. Jumper cables and enforced tooling around to recharge the battery. Head’d out toward the river and spotted a red fox poking its long nose into something black and glabrous by the road.

Jasper Bernes (and Boy)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Equal to One’s Own

Some Roman Trees

The ease of assent, yessing
Vacancy, out in the lots
With tires piled up here
And there. What is out
In the offing is always
Unconditional, proposing a disfigurement, like
Longing teetering against the boards,
Ready to become dread, anticipatory
Time running out into arrears.
Stuff’d with facts, what is
A fact coursing a route
One particular to another particular,
Or homing industriously, bent around
Against itself like a safety
Pin, capped off with something
Solder’d to it. The trees
In winter crosshatching the brunt
Of the lowering sky, eccentric,
Standing about in a grey
Periphery, scarf-circling a midpoint
Adamant with cluster’d ease. A
Contentment intervenes, a palpable now
Electric and immiscible and we
Do not know we’re there.

Disfiguringly cold. Reading Spengler, how mathematical-senses and language-senses determine perception. “The Apollonian soul had tried to tie down the meaning of things-become by means of the principle of visible limits; its taboo was focused upon the immediately-present and proximate alien. What was far away, invisible, was ipso facto ‘not there.’ The Greek and the Roman alike sacrificed to the gods of the place in which he happened to stay or reside; all other deities were outside the range of vision. Just as the Greek tongue—again and again we shall note the mighty symbolism of such language-phenomena—possessed no word for space, so the Greek himself was destitute of our feeling of landscape, horizons, outlooks, distances, clouds . . . Home, for Classical man, is what he can see from the citadel of his native town and no more. All that lay beyond the visual range of this political atom was alien, and hostile to boot; beyond that narrow range, fear set in at once, and hence the appalling bitterness with which these petty towns strove to destroy one another.” Entrancing, stirring, a miasma and welter, likely completely out of the wastrel fast currents of contemporary “thinking” in the whole trying-to-get-a-hoof-up shebang of disciplines, que sçais-je? Ça, as one says out here in the polis of nuthatch and shagbark and dog, m’est égal.

The Apollo of Belvedere

Monday, February 18, 2008

My Name Is Nobody

A Wall (Nessuno and Heart)

An avalanche of listlessness, all day Sunday with long rain in its hair, soddening the snowbanks, beading up along the soffit and plummeting off, me drowsing through kid-mischief. My loss of focus nigh-total—scribbling in the notebook about stinky-pots, meaning, in all likelihood, inky caps, those mycological wonders that die in a day and besmear the earth with black greasy imparticulars. Unsortable. Or something begins with an idea, and cannot push itself out of it:
The age is
One of forgetting.
History drifts off

So the state
Provides itself willy-
Nilly with a

New history, unimpeachably
Redeeming and fit
To a trajectory

Pre-determined. It
Extends power (power
Is a line

Stretch’d taut, limit’d,
Never a compiling,
Loose jangle of

A bag of
Small coin) . . .
Even with its pecuniary stamping, inert, unspendable. Where’s the history of animal slaughter? Rhode Island reds corner’d by barefoot girls in pigtails, rabbits swung up by the hind feet and clobber’d with a hand chop, torch-black’d beehives hack’d down with machetes into flour sacks, high-spur roosters staked to the blood-pack’d dirt, train’d for cockfighting. Where’s the history of succulents, of cleansers, of knurl’d knobs, of typography? The j of Ajax shaped like a scimitar. Springtails (snow fleas) heap’d up like soot in a boot print, a jittery black pool. A interminable heap going nowhere. Spengler: “Everyone . . . sets himself to discover in the accidental present terms that he can expand into some striking progression-series, the existence of which rests not on scientific proof but on predilection.” Or:
I see, in
Place of that
Empty figment of

One linear history
Kept up only
By shutting one’s

Eyes to that
Overwhelming multitude of
Facts, the mighty

Drama of innumerable
Cultures simultaneously springing
With coarse primitive

Strength up out
Of a soil-
Region, a vernacular

It defines and
Is defined by,
Each bound without

Boundary, each stamping
Its material-mettle
Into its own

Metal . . .
So one tickles particulars out of a thing. Poetry is, to paraphrase Goethe, a deadly abstract, there’ll only ever be a poem and another poem. Execrable mustiness of all classifiers, dodge-works all of them. Thus one thinks, supine in dusk.

“Sometimes, in publishing a novel in serial form, one would leave out part of the work in order to get the newspaper-reading public to buy the book.” So Walter Benjamin, compiler (The Arcades Project). The leaving out, the swerve away, the refusal of the ornate, the hustle, the escutcheon. The lineage pursuit (indiffident) of opening a novel with the bark: “Great Scott Moncrieff!” (Gilbert Adair). Think of the sournesses one’s suck’d up in giant denatured fits to fit in, lineage-ruts for what? Somewhere in The Apes of God (longueurs and drowses notwithstanding, one continues unfocusedly reading it), Dan Boleyn, Horace Zagreus’s hand-pick’d successor-genius—Zagreus himself successor to the mysterious “god-like Pierpoint”—somewhere Dan does think: “‘sides of beef, erected Nordic males, advertisements for ladies’ underwear’—words of his master, that his master had got from his master,” only to—shortly thereafter—undergo an exchange with Zagreus regarding some essential readings (sample title: Varnish in June). Zagreus:
      “You’ve got those haven’t you? I told Willie Servie to get them for you. It’s suffocating stuff to have to read. When Pierpoint first made me read them I almost mutinied. I couldn’t believe it was necessary. But I’ve never regretted it—it’s wonderful what you can get out of them!”
      His eyes shone innocently with the glamour of a young postulant, at the thought of this discipline.
History of lineage, its meagre beakerfuls of false consciousness traded down amongst the gullible. Dan Boleyn caught “Mechanically . . . visiting the spots recently vacated by Zagreus, like a dog at successive lamp-posts.” Rebuke the heritage the dogs’ll thrust forth, they require successors to provide a sense of legitimacy, and “growth.” There is no “growth.” There is only the self-appoint’d lineage-mongerer (and ’s retinue): “unspiritual, unphilosophical, devoid of art, clannish to the point of brutality, aiming relentlessly at tangible successes . . .” What’s merely tenable is most likely devoid of necessity, filler to the age, padding its brute forgetfulness. What’s required is a gallimaufry of reserves against the deficiencies of the single jutting line, a stewpot and bedraggle, a potting about (broken-field running) through (against) the discourse “set,” a fit thrown against fitting. Spengler: “Pure Civilization, as a historical process, consists in a progressive taking-down of forms that have become inorganic or dead.” (Spengler’s civilization being that final moribundity, an inert stage and contemptuously complacent age, against which any revivifying cultural force must needs assert itself.)

Ah yes, the Monday morning shakedown when, lacking tangible ideas, fuzzy-head’d and rarin’ to go à la fois, one turns to the dubious joy (and necessity!) of polemic.

A Springtail

Friday, February 15, 2008

Pooch and Refuse

A Wall (Ball and Chain)

The raillery and flood of yesterday, done up out of the truculent lurch of composition after flipping through Virgil Thomson’s letters (one of my periodic bouts with the word’s insufficiency wherein I nose book after book like a pooch, and find no track recent enough, or consequential, to start the yipping)—that raillery wudn’t, or warn’t, intend’d. What struck me: how Thomson’d been one of the house guests at Morris Golde’s along with Frank O’Hara the weekend of the latter’s being “run over on the beach by a jeep.” (Thomson’s letter to Maurice Grosser reporting the incident, written the next day—July 25, 1966—is quoted in the Gooch biography of O’Hara, though the correspondent’s inexplicably identify’d as “Maurice Grosman.”) Thomson’s report, in a tiny letter “mostly . . . about disaster”—poet and novelist Hubert Creekmore’s death, the deaths of Paul Bowles’s parents—after referring to O’Hara’s “less than a 50-50 chance to live,” somewhat abruptly turns to the “hot weather in NY” and how Thomson “bought a 24-inch fan, which helps.” “It has 3 speeds. Also the weather is a bit better. End of disasters.” As if to defy, or deny, the odds.

Struck, too, by the animus evident in a 1973 Thomson reply “to a correspondent”—unidentified—who’d asked whether O’Hara’s “association with the art world had compromised his poetry” (according to a footnote—one wonders if the original query’d load’d itself so). Thomson:
      I have long disapproved of American poets working for the Modern Art establishment, whether this is done as an employee of the Museum of Modern Art or as a contributor to any of the periodicals controlled by or connected with that museum.
      I am aware that the modern movement in painting was launched in Paris and continuously supervised by poets. This includes almost every poet working there from Apollinaire through Gertrude Stein and the surrealists.
      The practice was an informal one and the poets were informally, but more than adequately, recompensed by illustrations for their books and the gift of pictures.
      The practice here is underpaid and overorganized.
      As a result, the poets who advertise painting become very quickly a part of the Modern Art mafia.
      I consider this situation beneath them and injurious to their intellectual integrity.
      O’Hara is not the only poet in America who has got involved in what we know to be a name-and-price racket.
      That is all I have to say on the subject.
In toto. And which besmudges (usefully, one’d think) the gold-tint’d picture one gets of the young institution hand in hand with the makers. (Somehow, I am thinking of James Schuyler’s letters, that sense of the ease, say, of dashing off a note about the latest Twombly hanging, and for a fiver!) More, though, I wonder how Thomson’d respond to today’s “name-and-price racket”—if one can apply such scurrilous terms to a particular institution—the Poetry Foundation—comprised of (I’m pretty certain) individuals of well-meaning intent.

The trouble with institutions. Though I am following the recent Harriet hubbubs with no little avidity, a part of me refuses the premise. Refuses the enforced big umbrella tendency of the tenants (Christian Bök, meet Daisy Fried, &c.). Refuses the idea of contractual obligations coming anywhere near the writing. Refuses institutional questionnaires and “retreats”—as if one ought to apply the methods of polling and consulting agencies (marketing) to the beast of poetry. (I note Brand Silliman—inveterate marketer—’s one of the first bulls out of the shoot with the questionnaire. Brand Silliman, meet Brand Poetry Foundation, &c. Brand is bullish on poetry.) Refuses any “infusion” (of money, talent, &c.) that is not makeshift and irreplicable. Thomson’s accusation of “overorganized” is apt. Refuses centralizing forces of all sorts. (How’d the Joycean trinity of arms one ought allow oneself go—“furtive, solitary, and unorganized”? Oh. “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my foundation or my church, and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or act as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning.”)

Off I went to see German violinist Christian Tetzlaff do a solo recital: pieces by Eugène Ysaÿe, a dandy (and devilishly virtuosic) “Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin” by Béla Bartók, Bach’s “Sonata No. 3 in C Major,” and a rumpus of Paganini caprices. Encore: the achingly sweet adagio movement out of the Bach A minor sonata. Tetzlaff is both humble and expert. Remind’d me—the lone music stand, the solitary spot, no clatter and pump and black shine of piano—something about the stripped down bravado of it all, remind’d me of a long story Baxter Hathaway, dying of emphysema, related to me. In perfectly form’d and lengthy sentences—I was writing the sentences down, every morning I would sit with him and write the autobiographical sentences down—sentences forced out between gulps for air—he related a story of getting a bird-call imitator to come perform at the high school in Kalamazoo. A bird-call imitator! How wonderful! Something of that in Tetzlaff.

Virgil Thomson, 1896-1989

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Usual Charts

A Wall (Scratch and Surveillance)

The day is
A fret complacency,
Finger to finger-

Board, working off
The usual charts.
A cold-slavering

Sky under pin-
Prick sun. Skimming
Through letters writ

By Virgil Thomson,
One sees he
Loved Thonon-les-

Bains and memory’s
Drover moves a
Morning up out

Of deep canister
Storage: how we
Hightail’d it out

Of the youth
Hostel and spent
The day spoiling

For a lift.
Took a ferry
Finally to Lausanne,

Revamping the itinerary,
And end’d up
Somewhere north, in

A wood’d village,
Shelter’d by strangers.
I think of

It now’s near
Where the fat
Industrialist Hans-Martin

Schleyer got it
A couple years
Later. Baader Meinhof

Gang. So goes
The recollect, robust
Enough to pull

A sweet curve-
Hugging rambunctiousness into
Itself. A German-

Engineer’d vehicle, it
Handles with enough
Spritz and dash

To encourage brash
Tilt and boogie
Up to a

Precipice, or down
To the end
Of a rope.

Thomson call’d Adorno
‘A very bright
Little man indeed’

And reject’d an
Article about Sibelius
Owing to ‘too

Much indignation,’ as
If dignity’d got
A leg up

Or a fin
Slipped to it.
Beyond me, musical

Nuance. I like
To think of
Junior Wells in

Conk and earnest
Biting off plaint
And vocable, precise

And tight-lipped.
Hoodoo man modesty
In a satin

Shirt with three-
Button cuffs, all
Release and retrieval,

Embouchure holding the
Moan against itself,
Chisel-sharp, rent.

Junior Wells, “Hoodoo Man Blues”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Toy Engine

A Wall (Cap and Nail)

Here a lack
Of assemblage, a
Measure of off-

Hand wheedling asserts
Itself, and one
Tromps the ochre

Earth in clay’d
Up boots, or
Snow-laced sneakers,

Making tracks for
The distant instantaneous,
Yeah. New music’s

Disagreably whack vigor,
Quel jeux. If
A thing gels

Up florid, rid
It of its
Formal trance leaf-

Letting with haw-
Spittle, drool, or
A brick. Pool

Desires together, or
Heap one’s disgust
In a mound,

An autochthonous bump
Or box label’d
Mio caro canonico,

Surreptitious, syrup’d, sapped.
Recontext a puissant
Insobriety, dash off

Mark’d insolences, caulk-
Gun one’s plow-
Boy flibbertigibbits. Try

To make lines
Conflate a motor-
Mouth’d inexhaustible sluice-

Dipping (desert clime)
With a Tipperary-
Yen, a chary

Soul-ambuscading wench-
Abductress authenticity adequate
To the time.

Do it eagerly.
Accuse with precise
Dollops of mawk

And haemorrhage. A
Repertoire that yields
When struck or

Stuck in committee,
That log-rolling choir.
My only practice

Is the va
Et vient
In quire inventories,

Meddlesome ledgers of
Sleight of hand
Men, or my

Train jumps whatever
Track it’s laid
Down, and spares

The hog-tied
Damsel who balances
Nape and heel

Against the rails
In a japery
Of truth, or

Shrieks “alack” or
“Alas” through a
Handkerchief knot’d with

Artless negligence and
Reft, or my
Name isn’t Lionel.

Man Log-Rolling with Pole, c. 1925

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Elisabeth Workman’s Opolis

Signage and Drizzle

There’s something otherworldly about Elisabeth Workman’s Dusie Kollektiv chapbook Opolis (tÿpøgrafika, 2007). The thinnish canary-yellow paper, imprint’d in green inks, covers of identical stock—it’s audaciously flimsy, an honest pamphlet, recalls the era of fluttery blue aerogrammes with words writ small, inks in danger of bleeding through, a Spartan age of frugality and freedom, under the eave chambres de bonne with a yoghurt and a litre of beer wedged next to the ornamental ironwork. Air transport shot cloud cover for cover, with Opolis reversed out, unserif’d, inconspicuous, recto and verso. And shot through (accompanying each of the twenty-six prose-looking texts) with photographs, architectural, signage, Arabic, a Michelangelo David against a brick wall, minaret silhouettes, a Bush-vampire fanging Lady Liberty, pines, debris, print’d every which way, and bleeding spectacular ghost images “behind” each piece. The graphic work and images by Erik Brandt. Print’d in Doha, Qatar. Epigraph by Charles Baudelaire, that sheik of modernity: “N’importe où! n’importe où! pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde!” “Somewhere! anywhere! just so long as it’s not this world!”

Here is—maybe, the pieces seem slippery, chameleon’d, one’s focus going in and out in the reading, emphases shifting—a representative piece. Titled—each title is present’d in quotation marks, and number’d (01:01 through 01:26, Wittgenstein-style, or clock calibrated)—“Notion of Arts as Frivolity”—01:14:
mercenary, maverick, or missionary—one of the three. Apparently, aside from the alcoholic, oil-eyed narcissist who hasn’t left the sealed villa in three weeks, you should submit to classification. Live on the street with a concrete-slab vista, among amiable guards you always make a point of waving to and the mechanical gushes of water over plastic rocks, marking the entrance. Live as a number under the name, most likely a neologism of capitalist & eastern ideals. There’s the over-chlorinated pool and the water that induces balding. Live a refrigerated existence. On the other side of the walls, the nature of the shifting desert, snakes, and the yellow school bus full of indentured navvies lurk. The nefarious cranking and tapping of industrial machinery define nocturnal white noise. You find yourself wanting to complain about local ways though you’re not really certain how much is local or how much you’ve become a non sequitur
Opposite a photograph of a public space, escalators descending off and away, a square cover’d with electrical wires and several pup tents, each with a white cross attach’d—I think of Joseph Beuys’s constructions with thick felt and crosses, red—stories of rescue by tribesmen, or international agencies. (And, with the embedding of n-oddities (“navvies,” “nefarious,” “non sequitur”—fourteenth letter) and the twenty-six parts, it blooms up slow as an “analogue” photograph in a shallow tray of developer—there’s an alphabetical scheme to the doings here. The parts populated by words of that letter—01:01 by a, etc.—though beginning with the letter previous—therefore, “mercenary, maverick, or missionary”—a surefire way to throw one off the scent. The titles of the parts, too, begin with the appropriate letter: “Assumptions, or To Set into Operation,” “Basic Difference Between the Tribal and the Civilized,” “Choice and Collective Whim,” etc. And the whole piece is ouroboros’d by its first word: “zeal.”)

“Zeal” as in “zealot.” For there is no little sense of the present age of zealotry about the pieces. “Zeal is another approach to mapping blood” is how the thing begins, and the n-stanza provides—as it were—a limit of choices: “mercenary, maverick, or missionary.” The only available subject-positions (“submit to classification”) of the new imperium. Everywhere in Workman’s piece is uncertainty, failure, blockage, threat. As we ourselves’ve become the new “locals,” seal’d off against ourselves. In the a-stanza she writes: “In the distance, obstructed or artificial, we could still hear the iambic ah-ha’s of the highway and I made it about myself by myself with a warning about bullshit and bliss and architecture”—post-apocalyptic, post-identity, history reduced to a susurrus—“poetic”—in the distance. (Elsewhere, reiterating: “We eternalize only flux, the factual hamlet so lately ethereal. Sir, only evangelists see a sanitized sky.” Which “hamlet” somehow rings out a Shakespearean echo, and that of the tiny Vietnam hamlet destroy’d “in order to save it.”) Or, the city itself—the “           opolis,” O polis!—it, too, in a heave of demolishing and reconstructing, got at now with levity: “Say to the new skyscraper, you are not from around here are you, like a statement.” Again, that sense of no-belonging, and of being everywhere at once—one is colonized just as one is the colonizer: “The smell of breath is sony, the sweat blooming from skin, viacom.”

Opolis seems wholly and profoundly of its era (an “era” partially defined by statements like Workman’s “heaven is as hell is a hoax I decide so I make up multiple eras all at once and so overwhelming one wants to explode out of sheer inherited longing”). The unnamed global city consciousness-miasma we imperialists’ve inherited versus the longing for elsewhere. Workman, in a lovely line (there are many): “we dream omnisciently of there, which oscillates between never and now, operatic and open-mouthed.”

Elisabeth Workman and Erik Brandt

Monday, February 11, 2008

Wyndham Lewis Notes

Leaf, Snow

Overnight—Saturday—a high pressure area bulged in, deposit’d a lash of snow and lit it up with a fierce white light, inadequate camouflage for a noisy cold wind. So one wound oneself into coverlets and drowsed in and out of Wyndham Lewis’s Time and Western Man (1928), and try’d to avoid the sunlight’s false summons. Successfully. And collect’d in execrable claw-scrawl a battery of pencil notes. Things to record. Things to bounce against.

Struck dumb by Lewis’s quoting—in the Preface—of Henri Bergson’s “time is a material and not merely a formal element of the world.” That is, time is “the very ‘stuff of things.’” Which, coverlet’d and at my ease, I ponder’d—not much caring (or knowing, such is the book) whether Lewis meant to refute the idea or not. I attempt’d to think of time as something purely empty, an “unpopulated” past, and found it impossible. Time fills immediately with something, it is unidentifiable without a marker. (It is that chaotic, teeming Time that Lewis lays out to dissect in the book—“this ‘Time’ called the ‘mind of Space’”). In a sense mind itself imitates time, manifesting itself as a thing construct’d—available—only by content—language—or, metaphorically, unable to gum—empty mouth, pure form—the void.) (And what of space? Is it possible to think of space without markers? Even if only in the “blank” form of a grid, or a horizon?)

Lewis: “Language has to be destroyed before you transform ideas at all radically.”

Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1917): “The application of the ‘homology’ principle to historical phenomena brings with it an entirely new connotation for the word “contemporary.” I designate as contemporary two historical facts that occur in exactly the same—relative—positions in their respective Cultures . . . we might . . . decscribe Pythagoras as the contemporary of Descartes, Archytas of Laplace, Archimedes of Gauss. The Ionic and the Baroque, again, ran their course contemporaneously. Is set alongside Pound’s lines out of The Spirit of Romance (1910): “It is dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers about the Pillars of Hercules. All ages are contemporaneous. It is B. C., let us say, in Morocco. The Middle Ages are in Russia. The future stirs already in the minds of the few.” An idea I associate mostly forcefully with Guy Davenport. Palimpsest: scratch a contemporary to uncover an ancient. Unlikely that Spengler read Pound—?

Lewis: “When Revolution—that is simply the will to change and to spiritual transformation—ceases to be itself, and passes over more and more completely into its mere propaganda and advertisement department, it is apt, in the nature of things, to settle down in the neighbourhood of sex . . . No Western revolution would be complete without its strident advertisement. In the pagan world the facts of sex had no undue importance. That they have derived entirely . . . from the puritan consciousness.” And: “If you are desirous of showing your “revolutionary” propensities, and it is a case of finding some law to break to prove your good-will and spirit, what better law than the dear old moral law, always there invitingly ready and eager to be broken. So it is that “sex” for the European is the ideal gateway to Revolution, that no one but a violent sex-snob can enter . . . And so it is that that will-to-change or impulse to spiritual advance, which is the only sensible meaning of Revolution, is confused and defeated.” And one thinks of William Burroughs, or Kathy Acker, or some of today’s tenderfeet looking to add sex-gush to what’s art-deficient, and so make a stir and hooplah, “revolutionary” as bangs. As if the dare and claim of the “avant” cultural worker is to be at least as vulgar as advertising, its pouty minions, its perruque’d execs, its billboards, its superfluous vanity. They get Lewis’s label: “the revolutionary simpleton.” Defined negatively: “Not the enthusiast of the will-to-change at its source, but only of its surface-effects, on the plane of vulgarization.”

Lewis, relatedly: “What you have to ask yourself is why, exactly, a grown person should wish to be a child?—for to use the forms of infantile or immature life, to make an art of its technical imperfections, and to exploit its natural ignorance, is in some sense, to wish to be a child.” Main exhibit for Lewis in the category of the faux-naïf is Gertrude Stein—her stuttering and stammering, her endless repetitions. He rather prettily aligns her with the Anita Loos of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a woman capable of writing “Paris is devine. I mean Dorothy and I got to Paris yesterday and it really is devine. Because the French are devine . . .” and so on with the dud orthography and the stance of the astound’d idiot. And extends it to others. What I find notable is how apropos Lewis’s fleet analysis is to the “present era,” wherein one notes, if anything, a rabid increase in such faux-naïveté. Indeed, in some quarters it’s become a compulsion, a house style, condito sine qua non. The mock-innocent lyrical outbursts (“O, O, O”); the repetitious descendents of Stein, refusing even the meagrest attempt at any copious or fulsome articulation of complexity; the blithe-unterganging pseudo-pratfalls of der Flarfmeisters, sport-tripping through the pathos of the illiterate. Lewis: “Humor is to be deliberately extracted from all this; that is to say that author and reader are both superior to the narrator.”

Wyndham Lewis, 1951

Friday, February 08, 2008

Conditions de lumière

A Wall (Numerals and Pendants)

There’s a kind of keen-edged solace, meditative, to translating, nudging words here and there, surveying (sounding) the results. Akin, surely, to writing, though perhaps less fraught with—unh—jittery perspicacity? I don’t know. Maybe it’s that old trick of convincing oneself that one’s just goofing off, no hat in the ring, no caps in the pistol, that remarkable state of permission-trance (that’s most likely to cough up the goods, doff the fez, mantle the keister, ever howsome one puts it). So: I niggled more with the small boxes of Hocquard’s Conditions de lumière, sipped a Labatt’s:
Dormir un tesson dans la
main   Je regarde les montagnes
pour toi   Corps pour usage
      Lumière pliée

Sleep a shard in
hand   I look at the mountains
for you   Body for extended
      Pleated light

Les habits contaminent le
paysage   Un palmier prend la
mer   Autour de   Description
d’un éternuement
      Couleur photographique

Clothes contaminate the
landscape   A palm tree sails the
sea   Around about   Description
of a sneeze
      Photographic tints

Neige & prépositions
entrent dans des associations
variables   Le pré du voisin   En
l’absence de preuve
      Autre pli

Snow & prepositions
enter into unstable
associations   The neighbor’s field   In
absence of proof
      Another fold
All three out of the twentieth series in the book (each titled “Conditions de lumière”—“Light Conditions”). The book consists of twenty-one series, each comprised of five pieces, identically “shaped.” A final note of a couple of (narrow) prose columns is call’d “Dans une coupe en verre”—“In a Glass” points in a distill’d and enigmatic way to something like a poetics, a way of reading the pieces. Tout énoncé est légion     Même un mot isolé résonne     C’est le Théâtre du langage     La mise en scène du croire à     Du faire croire que . . . “Every utterance is outlaw     Even a solitary word sounds out     Is a language-theatre     Is the mounting of belief in     The making believe that . . .” (Mmmm.) Two odd echoes in the piece. One is Hocquard’s talk of “elegy,” how elegy exists in every repetition of a word: La langue tout entière est élégie—“All language is elegy.” Stirring one to look again at the lovely opening lines of Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”:
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies. . . .
That old gorgeous notion of language’s rampant straining desire to regain its one-ness with the things of this world, its—how Christian!—having got itself toss’d out, expell’d somehow in disconnect. Some garden of re-attachment language seeks, futile, lamenting. (Another skeptical Mmmm.)

The other note and resonance. Hocquard’s final paragraph:
L’intonation de la récitation est neutre     Sa vitesse constante     S’est mis en place un intervalle ou une espace de sortie     Car il ne s’est jamais agi d’entrer     En parlant ou écrivant ou traduisant on cherche la sortie     À s’en sortie

Reading’s tone is neutral     Its speed unvarying     It offers up a gap or a place for exit     It’s never a question of entry    In talking or writing or translating one’s looking for an exit     Just a way out
Which is, isn’t it, somehow a nod to drummer Elvin Jones’s brilliant explique: “The length of my solos doesn’t mean anything. When I go on for so long, I am looking for the right way to get out. Sometimes the door goes right by and I don’t see it, so I have to wait until it comes around again. Sometimes it doesn’t come around at all for a long, long time.” And, sure enough, there’s more—Hocquard’s “Notes.” In the form of reading-commands, “Read omitting the verb ‘to be.’ . . . Read each page as if it were the caption of a postcard. . . . Read in the sun . . . Read each page twice.”

Elvin Jones, 1927-2004