Friday, December 23, 2011

Bernadette Mayer / Emily Dickinson

Bernadette Mayer

Cold again. The usual doubts and furies. (The usual dawdling and prevaricatory page-turning.) “Using self in the hermetic tradition, that is, against the ceiling of everything, to include all.” A lovely way of putting it—Bernadette Mayer’s, out of What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? (Tuumba, 2006). Rather like Emily Dickinson declaring to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.” Think of Marianne Moore’s undaunted prickly precision regarding Dickinson’s—and by extension, Mayer’s—supposed “vanity”:
A certain buoyancy that creates an effect of inconsequent bravado—a sense of drama with which we may not be quite at home—was for her a part of that expansion of breath necessary to existence, and unless it is conceited for the hummingbird or the osprey to not behave like a chicken, one does not find her conceited.
Or see Moore’s entirely apt claim that “the behavior of an ear that lives on sound is as sudden as the rush of the canoe toward the rapid” against something like Mayer’s “Perfect Berry Architecture”—out of Indigo Bunting (Zasterle, 2004):
polyglot company disinters her
ossuaries engulf recidividists everywhere
now we are in alphabet creek perfect tense
so far every loner with us—would she begin
to risk her identity, a beginner
to fall down that wave, witness this: who
gets whom into troubler, troublest waters female

good news! a marble cat is on the prowl
a wolverine in laos, i am a user i use you
interminable until walked-out nights
become sepulchral, lacustrine & crepuscular
there’s a rainbow in the same part of the sky
it’s always in except when it’s in the forest
where there cant be any light, red rock
Dim fluid wash of “the gloaming” in the soft-mouthed acrobacy of that “sepulchral, lacustrine & crepuscular”—a sequence whose “prequel” is “ossuaries engulf.” That “red rock” summoning up a Niedecker-inflected wintergreen berry, its shy perfect architecture in the wax-colored light. Moore talks of Dickinson’s ability “to make words convey ‘more than the sum of their meanings laid end to end’; and to attain splendor of implication without prefatory statement”—one’s concision found “at” the exact same extremity or extension as one’s largesse. (See Mayer’s reply to Bill Berkson’s query, What is the distance between word and referent in your poems?:
“”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””” my “””””” I don’t understand what distance means.
Probably a sidelong peckish reference to John Ashbery’s “Idaho” with its freighted story of Carol and Biff’s “small hand-assemblies”—and the giddy quandaries of its punctuational voluptuousnesses: “Exactly what kind of perfection??????????????????????????????????????????????????” and “Every tendril of thought,,,,,,,,,) Is it pertinent to demand of largesse that it expand not into excess? (Dickinson’s pert reply: “The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—”) Is excess a kind of panic? Mayer:
Panic is essentially a sexual activity . . . Panic I think brings the whole body a lift & reorganizes in a necessary way . . . it’s not a crazy response, it’s the response of a person who wants pleasure & not its opposite. It’s chaotic though . . .
And, to Berkson’s question, Do you think panic is necessary to change the scenery or what?
Yes . . . change the whole scenery, change the body & mind though panic still is associated with death so it’s not a pleasant method at the moment but it prevents the more desolate pain of boredom & reminds you that you have strong feelings all the time. Panic, though, oddly ’s not attractive & one has an image of the completely self-composed man or woman. I hid my panic in my eyes.
See the etymology: panic out of the French panique (adjective) (of fear) sudden, wild (1534 in Rabelais in terreur Panice), of or relating to the god Pan (1546 in Rabelais) < Hellenistic Greek πανικός (adjective) of or for Pan, (of fear) groundless, also πανικόν panic terror. With a note: “Pan was thought to frequent mountains, caves, and lonely places, and sounds heard or fears experienced in such places came to be attributed to him.” (“I hid my panic in my eyes”: highly Dickinsonian in the sly obviousness of its evident concealment. Sign of Mayer’s blunt “recidividists” lack of any overly compunctious “cut” to her style—somewhere she says: “I’m afraid of having a style that’s easy for me to write in without any risks or cutlery.” Or, as Dickinson put it: “I was thinking, today—as I noticed, that the “Supernatural,” was only the Natural, disclosed—
Not “Revelation”—’tis—that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes—”
And Emily Dickinson, though she famously reported to Higginson, “I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid,” seemingly never used the word panic.)

Off a week or so—for “seasonal adjustments.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s Vaudeville

Geoffrey Hilsabeck

Received and read tout de suite: Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s Vaudeville (The Song Cave, 2011). It begins (epigraph by Buster Keaton: “I don’t act anyway”):
We are left with the word vaudeville and little more than that, the word itself a kind of elegy. Vaudeville. We are left only with traces: a few flat descriptions in books, some scratchy studio recordings, and what survives in early Hollywood, the anarchic Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Buster’s great stone face, which he learned on vaudeville where deadpan was king. Pan was slang for face: the comic puts on a dead face, like a death mask, that plaster cast made soon after someone died in the days before photography, and walks among the living. He learned as a kid that there is something hilarious about that. He wears a mask, like the actors in Greek theater, Noh theater, Commedia dell’arte where the clown was born. It is rather an archaic thing to do. It lets silence back into life.
Beyond the initial nod to the Robert Hass iteration of the “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” (“Meditation at Lagunitas”), Hilsabeck deposits all of vaudeville itself, under the “deadpan” of Buster Keaton, some elegiac blank waiting to be filled. (Hilsabeck: “Such common feelings, so everyday—our monotonous sublime—we find written across Buster’s blank face.”) Vaudeville is up and down memoir, a way of revivifying both what Hilsabeck calls “a mongrel feeling,” that is America “at the butt end of Thoreau’s ‘restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth century’,” and a particular: Hilsabeck’s vaudeville-loving grandfather. The two merge (along with numerous vaudevillians: John Carl, who played the banjo and sang “a song called ‘The Lively Flea’: Feeding where no life may be, / a dainty old chap is the lively flea . . .” only to “stop suddenly and recite Shakespeare, Shakespeare both straight and in burlesque”; “A dancer called Fleury in a long cape, tossing the cape up so that it settles on his head like a turban, revealing nipples painted to resemble large eyes, a painted nose over his stomach, and a bellybutton done up like puckered lips”; or Eva Tanguay, “The Evangelist of Joy,” who “moved, constantly . . . had wild, unruly hair and wore . . . a skimpy dress with pennies glued to it, a chandelier-like hat, . . . a thing with feathers . . . Reviewers described her voice as ‘a hairshirt to the nerves’ and compared her dancing to ‘a mad dog fleeing a mob of small boys’”—the details mount and collide . . . Hilsabeck’s text performing its claim: “An improvisatory, vernacular spirit ran like a current through vaudeville, kept alive by interruption . . . giving the show its air of . . . instability, even menace, the menace of things breaking down.”) Out of elegy, energy, as Hilsabeck puts it, and, in lovely adjectival pile-ups, those gestural Whitmanesqueries (“Vaudeville. Irrelevant, unpredictable, an ad-hoc hodgepodge, rude, stretching its long arms across the wide country, sounding its barbaric yawp . . .”), makes it central to the “blood-soaked American landscape,” pointing to its origin in racial mimicry:
A white man smears burnt cork on his face to mimic one of two types of black men, neither of whom exist: the lazy field hand and the foolish dandy with a watermelon grin. A white dance troop performs a cakewalk . . .

But the cakewalk started not in Africa but on plantations in America, a burlesque of the ballroom dances performed by white bosses at the big house. Whites came down to watch blacks do their funny dance, not realizing that the black dance lampooned the white, and then they started doing it on stage for an audience: whites spoofing blacks spoofing whites. Forms of popular entertainment based on stereotypes and misconceptions, mistaken identities, fantasies based on fantasies, acts that can only be traced back to other acts. A match is a fire to start another fire.
Hilsabeck’s (I assume) fire, the contemporary interrupting / underpinning the historical:
A vaudevillean monologue: I am so wild, furious, rabid, savage, and violent right now about the miserable state of interior decorating and the soil generally I could scream. I did, in the shower, the whole time. Bristol Palin is not Bristol Palin! But you knew that. This world is a world not of the old weapons—lance, arbalest, and spontoon—but the new—pistol, wire, and drone. Not of the old words—Antipathy and Revulsion, Animus—but the new—Nail. Gut. Rabbit. And so and thus I screamed and screamed and I soaped up my hairy ass and armpits and between the fingers and all those toes, all those areas are really clean right now, pal. So don’t even think about shouting out the answers because I’m super at-home in the questions.
Against the manic, the calmly-conferred quotidian veering off into something “archaic,” a kind of near-mystic sense of system, all couched in “deadpan” matter-of-fact:
I am writing a memoir. I use my grandfather’s books. They stretch down into the 19th century: American Vaudeville; The Strange Career of Jim Crow; Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845; books on the Indian in America with titles like The Great Father and The Long Death; a book on water. The rotten voice of my memoir is America, and so is the sweet mystery of its face. It won’t sell. It begins and ends in Iowa, Iowa from the French word for the Bah Kho Je tribe. It begins with the wild canary and the wild rose and the geode and ends with the guttural muttery grunt of a hog. Each chapter has its color—brick, sand, daisy, wax. After green comes black, a black scarf we tie around the mailbox. And we long for the open piano. The grass grows stranger. Some creeks, some rivers—a weedy affability inhabits the edges, but we cannot bury our dead there: it is too close to the water. I pass them on foot, only myself. I drink from them and know only a fraction of what I taste and become.
One likely origin for the term vaudeville: out of “the French voix de ville, voice of the city.” One of the pleasures of Hilsabeck’s writing here: the sense of a multiplicity of competing, converging voix. See Keaton’s The Playhouse. Wherein Keaton “finds himself watching himself. Conducting and consulting and telling jokes to himself. . . . Buster playing an audience member says to himself playing the wife of that audience member after scanning the program, this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

George Stanley (Some Notes)

George Stanley
(Photograph by Star Black)

Somewhere George Stanley uses a line by Czesław Miłosz (out of “Reconciliation”) for an epigraph—“The poet: one who constantly thinks of something else.”

Stanley’s sense of the world’s distant ongoingness (somewhere beyond, colliding only briefly with one’s words, or, rarely, providing one with one’s words). Out of Vancouver: A Poem (New Star Books, 2008):
This is being written just after noon on September 22, 1999 — probably the last day of this gentle, warm late summer that followed a cold, rainy August. I’m perched on a welded steel stool leaning on the steel counter of a pomo coffee shop which I guess is called Trees Organic Coffee Co. (at least that’s what it says on my coffee cup — dark Sumatra coffee — the image — the image of the map — of Indonesia — from the Globe & Mail & the BBC on-line — in mind) — east side of Granville just north of Pender — this soft bright sunlight off the young maples on the Mall — light & shadow sharply delineated on the pavement — to right, Sinclair Centre — the old Post Office — where the 1938 demonstration / police riot still goes on, black-coated arm upraised coming down on the men running away escaping down the short flight of steps at the entrance on Hastings St., now Plaza Escada — dress shop — so are we (tuna sandwiches) now at lunch time seated at round tables with red & yellow chessboards on them & painted scalloped edges in two shades of green, behind a low ornamental steel railing — & people walking the Mall, two men stopping to talk between the potted plants, one wearing a madras jacket, hand on hip to indicate midmorning ennui — bicycles, buses . . . I really don’t know what I’m doing — this is not the world. It’s just my take. My lucky take. My sunny day September take.
After the focus and precision of the “take”: a toss-off and denial. A plunge back into. See, too: “And know that these words were so strong / I could live in the world they made. / But that I had made the words myself / to build a world — a world we could talk about, / using the words. To forget it was just raw longing / not to be alone.” (A few lines subsequent, Stanley posits being “better / off now, without any common language” and that “Words have to come out of the / world (like ‘gold ink’). There’s no good / flopping around like a fish . . .” I am entirely “took” by the dilemma. In “The Set”— out of A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems, 1957-2000 (Qua Books, 2003)—Stanley talks of missing “That sense that there was a world & meaning / outside your mind.” And briefly becomes, late in the piece, “a steel ball in a Bally machine”—banging around like a pinball, such the vacillatory glee / want of the poet. Here’s the whole terrific thing:
The Set

Remembering how it felt
working on the Grape
in ’72, doing layout
in a grey former grocery
on Powell — we’d take a break
at suppertime & head for the pub,
knock back six or eight drafts,
a package or two of chips,
maybe a pickled sausage,
& tell the waiter,
“Take one for yourself.”

We were a part of history
in our mental spotlight, drinking beer
with trade unionists from the ’30s,
in that battered pub (soon to be closed,
renovated & turned into a fern bar).
They told us tales
of struggles of the past.

We’d troop back, half-lit
through snowy darkness or summer shadow
to that grey, dingy, dimly lit
former grocery, to finish our layout.
There was never enough liner
or blades for the X-Acto knives & the
typeset “corrections” always came late
from the Peak & had to be pasted
in by hand, but the beer in our heads
kept us going past midnight — also the link
with the old union guys — with the dirty ’30s —
we were for real — & we were dirty.

Do you miss all that? Do you miss the dirty ’70s?
That sense that there was a world & meaning
outside your mind? Tho sceptic Ed Dorn
said “the set,” you could account
not just for the world but for nature itself:
the trees that leafed in the spring on Powell St.,
the stars — for you thought,
why would there be stars if there were
no world for them to shine on?

& by the third or fourth draft
your hangover would lift
& there’d be the sacred streets, in long
purple & orange stripes of sunset
to the eternal horizon,

& you called yourself a cadre,
a little yeast cell, making
tiny, correct changes in people’s
consciousness, getting the paper out
on the streets. Miss all that?

I shot up to Rupert for no reason
like a steel ball in a Bally machine,
banging around the pink bumpers,
racking up point for god knows who or what.

I came almost to a stop, poised at the entrance
to one of those long, gently raked, steel alleys
you can roll down for years, decades, & still
be far from the flippers. Then I missed the world,
the beery romance of politics,
(the whiskey romance of poetry),
the set.
Fighting the romance, that “mental spotlight,” and succumbing. Is it the loss of that X-Acto knife’d world of print tangibles that makes the piece sting so sweetly? World interspliced with “set” so there’s no telling where the act ends and the work begins: a kind of definition of youth.

“Meaning outside your mind.” There’s Stanley talking (interviewed by Brook Houglum and Jenny Penberthy in excellent George Stanley issue of The Capilano Reiew) about “Aboutism”:
      Aboutism was an idea framed as if it were a poetic movement. The manifesto is from Ryan Knighton: “Theory guards us from error; we are for error.”
      Aboutism was a reaction to language poetry, and language poetry quite clearly eliminated reference. I think what the language poets were trying to do was similar to what the post-impressionists did in painting. That is, to make a painting not out of the images of the world, portraits, and landscapes and all that, but to make a painting out of paint. So that’s a lesson that one learns from Cézanne. So I think language poetry at a theoretical level, with a classic language poet like Clark Coolidge, was attempting to create an art form simply out of words abstracted from their signification. My sense of that immediately was “You can’t do that.” It’s not possible in language. In visual arts you can take shape and line and colour away from the world and make something new out of them that has nothing to do with any referential object. Abstraction. But you cannot separate a word from its signification. If you have the word “tiger” in a poem the image of a tiger will arise in your mind inevitably. It seems to me that even in the most austere language poets—like Deanna Ferguson or Clark Coolidge—there was always this sort of semantic haze around the poem of the meanings, of the significations that had been excluded but didn’t go away.
That lovely moment in Vancouver where Stanley admits: “I’ve been doing, no, writing, this so long — / nothing wrong.” And counters it with simple relief, that humble marvel of writing itself:
Now the words tell of something so obvious
as to see the air in front of you
but not to have known it was something
to see.
“Writing — to see what turns up, or to keep going.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cod and Stravaig

Pyrrho of Elis, c. 360–c. 270

Dopey notelets. En miettes. My habit of manhandling the superficies. Palping a book with unstudied intent, trying to dope out its requisites and indispensables. Rather like running a stumpy thumb along a knife blade, ascertaining nothing, with no particular prospect. Compiling the detritus of my own waywardness, thus. Out of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956, a reply (dated 18 December 1953) to a lost query (by one Patricia Hutchins) regarding Pound:
The only time I remember having met Pound was one evening at dinner with the Joyces in the Trianons, place de Rennes. He was having great trouble with a fond d’artichaud and was very aggressive and disdainful.
In a footnote:
SB told Hugh Kenner (1923-2003) that he had met Ezra Pound in 1929 while at dinner with James Joyce. In a letter to Kenner, SB recalls: “My memory is of the Trianon restaurant and I can still see the artichoke’s heart evading his fork while he inquired cuttingly what epic I was engaged on at the moment” . . . As told by Kenner [in The Pound Era], Pound “came upon Joyce holding court and was enraged by what he took to be a climate of sycophancy. Of one slim youth he enquired, in withering tones, whether he might be writing an Iliad, or would it be a Divina Commedia.” Kenner added: “One should not say such a humiliating thing to anyone . . . but it is especially regrettable that he should have said it to Sam Beckett.”
Kenner calls it Pound’s “needless irascibility.” (Isn’t one sign of aging the begrudging of youth its youth, meaning its sheer ungainly possibility. Hence, I suspect, Pound’s momentary fork-fingered loss of motor control. One routinely sees it in the petulant fierce occludings of the “arrived” . . .)

Beckett to Grove Press’s Barney Rosset (11 February 1954):
I thought myself of trying again in English, but it’s only evading the issue like everything else I try. If there was a head and a rock I’d rather beat that against this than start the old fake stravaguing again. It’s hard to go on with everything loathed and repudiated as soon as formulated, and in the act of formulation, and before formulation. . . . At the moment I have a “man” crawling along a corridor in the rock in the dark, but he’s due to vanish any day now. Of course there’s no reason why it would start now or ever for that matter. I’m horribly tired and stupefied, but not yet tired and stupefied enough. To write is impossible but not yet impossible enough. That’s how I cod myself these days.
Stravague, or stravaig. To wander about aimlessly. Chiefly Scottish, northern dialect, and Irish. Aphetic form of extravage < medieval Latin extrāvagārī.

In Guy Davenport’s Trois Caprices, in the story of “Pyrrhon of Elis,” “an agnostic who withheld his opinion of every matter”:
He denied that anything was good or bad, right or wrong. He doubted that anything exists, said that habits and custom dictate our actions, and would not allow that a thing is either more this than that on its own.
      He thus went out of his way for nothing, leaving all to chance, and was wholly incautious with encounters, whether with carts in the street, cliffs toward which he was walking, or dogs. He said he had no reason to believe that his solicitude for his welfare was wiser than the results of an accident. Antigonos of Karystos tells us that his friends followed him about to keep him from falling into rivers, wells, and ditches. He lived for ninety years.
Amongst Pyrrhon’s teachings: “A thing can be known in relation to something else, therefore nothing can be known in itself . . . To confirm one thing by another, as we always must, is to move in a futile circle.” I think of Dana Ward in “Typing ‘Wild Speech’” (This Can’t Be Life, why so determinedly piecemeal my reading thereof?) writing: “Stephanie has a line—‘the real sickness of comparing unalike things’. I squirm as I ring my variations on this illness. All I ask of promiscuous affinity is that it cross the valediction of their bodies.” Or the Pyrrhonesque in Ward’s lines:
I used to see ‘being a poet’ as an intoxicating costume that was just over there & if I could inch ever closer to it I’d be contaminated fully & mixed with its essence forever. Often times I have nothing to add to this confusion beyond the lightning storm of my own political depravations, for which my poetry is an endless sea of waiting metal rods. So there’s the face of a part of my trouble. Thus, as a ‘poet’, I must drink, must smoke, must travel, must dodge employ as much as possible. I guard these aspects jealously as I’ve allowed their presence to assume a causal life inextricably linked to my production as a poet. A sort of Fordist assemblage of romantic clichés that when operating in consort give me access to a consciousness that floods the factory backwards, destroying it, & that’s called a poem. Then its ruins in their sentience gather back together & the whole fucking thing starts again.
Kin, surely, in its tough and tender command of its “stance”—amidst wild uncertainty—to O’Hara’s “Personism”: “one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.” So Davenport’s Pyrrhon of Elis inhabits a world made grace by means of its welter of particulars, nothing “like” any other thing, nothing “either more this than that,” all detritus, waywardness, extravagaria, the artichoke sliding off the plate:
So for ninety years Pyrrhon, the son of Pleistarkhos, lived . . . in the charming town of Elis, with its horse-breeding citizens; and Olympic coaches and umpires; its swarm of splendid athletes and spectators every four years; its shady streets with sleeping hogs and their nursing litters; yellow dogs running in packs; choruses of Spartan trumpeters; fleets of Corinthian girl companions with raccoon eyes, pink frills and Asiatic embroidery from shoulder to heel and gaits as if to the flutes of Lydia; goats in a mist of flies; eloquent sculptors talking style in the wine shops; long-haired painters jibbering over onion stew in the ordinaries; mathematicians playing chess under the chinaberry trees; children tossing knucklebones in the parks under the gaze of Gorgon nannies; ladies of the Sodality of Hera rolling though the avenues in donkey carts, demure under parasols; grizzled philosophers and their raunchy boyfriends tumbling naked in the palaistra . . . a sad Gaul who was writing a book about the moon; acrobats; priests of every mystery you could think of, Eleusinian, Delian, Sabazian, Dodonian, what have you, even a brown Egyptian who ran a temple of Isis and Osiris down near the tanning yard (much heckled by the stable boys); in short, a fine round world of people and things, seasons and years and rumors of other worlds as far away as the Indus and the Nile, the Thames forever hidden by fog and the Danube said to be as blue as a Doric eye; but was honestly uncertain that he did, and would never admit to any of it.
“That’s how I cod myself these days.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Haniel Long / William Carlos Williams

Haniel Long, 1888-1956
(Oil portrait by Agnes Tait)

Miles of bare trees, colossal the variance within a band, gray, or the grays interrupted in the low shrubby foreground by the reds and ochres of osiers. (Reverie whilst conducting the Vibe across the gelid plant under yesterday’s storm of yellow sunlight.) Some initial desultory reading of Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935) makes me wonder if William Carlos Williams read it. Something Paterson-esque to its way of accreting and juxtaposing anecdote. Here’s a chunk, beginning with Henry Clay Frick, barely two weeks after Alexander Berkmann attempted to assassinate him (23 July 1892) in revenge for the murders, by Frick-hired Pinkerton detectives, of seven steelworkers at the Homestead strike (Long: “Berkmann told about it later: ‘Carnegie selected Frick, bloody Frick of the coke regions, to carry the program into execution. Must the oppressed forever submit? Human life is indeed sacred, but to remove a tyrant is the giving of life and opportunity to an oppressed people . . On and on rushes the engine . . “Pittsburgh! Pittsburgh!” the harsh cry of the conductor startles me . . .”), only to be subdued:
August fifth Frick walked alone across his lawn, stepped upon an open trolley car, entered his office at the stroke of eight, and rang for the morning’s mail. “If an honest American cannot live in his own home without a bodyguard, it is time to quit,” he told the reporters.

Out at Homestead it kept on, about the worst affair ever for strikers and their wives and children.

Ben Butler wanted Carnegie extradited for murder.

General Grosvenor called him the arch-sneak of this age.

A London paper said: “Here we have this Scotch-Yankee plutocrat meandering through Scotland in a four-in-hand opening public libraries, while the wretched workmen who supply him with ways and means for His self-glorification are starving in Pittsburgh.”

A St. Louis paper said: “Say what you will of Frick, he is a brave man. Say what you will of Carnegie, he is a coward. And gods and men hate cowards.”

But Gladstone wrote Carnegie: “. . . simply to say . . . that no one who knows you will be prompted by unfortunate occurrences across the water, of which manifestly we cannot know the exact merits, to qualify in the slightest degree either his confidence in your generous views or his admiration of the great and good work you have done. Wealth is at present like a monster threatening to swallow up the moral life of man you, by precept and example, have been teaching him to disgorge. . Very faithfully yours . .”
A form recalling, in its jagged contours, what Williams called, in the 1927 ur-“Paterson”: the “divisions and imbalances” of the “whole concept, made small by pity / and desire . . . no ideas beside the facts—” (Long himself, in a lovely phrase, admits to putting form to work in a sort of accuracy-taming manner, counter to the wild plethora of “versions.” A paragraph detailing Berkmann’s attack reads:
Colonel Harvey told about it later (everyone told about it but Frick): “The first bullet passed through the neck near the base of the skull and down between the shoulders; the second bullet passed through the right side of the neck. Mr. Frick, in a low voice . . ‘Don’t kill him—let the law take its course; but raise his head and let me see his face . .’ The Sheriff, following the direction indicated by Mr. Prick's index finger, saw that Berkmann had a capsule between his teeth. ‘Remove that capsule.’ It contained fulminate of mercury,* enough to blow all in the room to bits.”
Long’s footnote: “The capsule of fulminate of mercury mentioned by Col Harvey and Winkler does not appear in Berkmann’s detailed account. I had arranged the cadences of my page before I noticed the discrepancy.” See Williams’s own lines at the beginning to the “Preface” to Paterson: “To make a start, / out of particulars / and make them general, rolling / up the sum, by defective means—”)

It’s resemblant cadences though—Williams to Long—that I mostly note. Out of Paterson:
A false language. A true. A false language pouring—a
language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without
dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear. At least
it settled it for her. Patch too, as a matter of fact. He
became a national hero in ’28, ’29 and toured the country
diving from cliffs and masts, rocks and bridges—to prove his
thesis: Some things can be done as well as others.
old time Jersey Patriot
N .   F .   P A T E R S O N !
(N for Noah; F for Faitoute; P for short)
“Jersey Lightning” to the boys.
      So far everything had gone smoothly. The pulley and ropes were securely fastened on each side of the chasm, and everything made in readiness to pull the clumsy bridge into position. It was a wooden structure boarded up on both sides, and a roof. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon and a large crowd had gathered—a large crowd for that time, as the town only numbered about four thousand—to watch the bridge placed in position.
      That day was a great day for old Paterson. It being Saturday, the mills were shut down, so to give the people a chance to celebrate. Among those who came in for a good part of the celebration was Sam Patch, then a resident in Paterson, who was a boss over cotton spinners in one of the mills. He was my boss, and many a time he gave me a cuff over the ears.
      Well, this day the constables were on the look for Patch, because they thought he would be on a spree and cause trouble. Patch had declared so frequently that he would jump from the rocks that he was placed under arrest at various times. He had previously been locked up in the basement under the bank with a bad case of delirium tremens, but on the day the bridge was pulled across the chasm he was let out. Some thought he was crazy. They were not far wrong.
Out of Williams’s letter dated 31 May 1951: “I have no recollection when it was that I first began thinking of writing a long poem upon the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city.” And: “The thing was to use the multiple facets which a city presented as representatives for comparable facets of contemporary thought thus to be able to objectify the man himself as we know him and love him and hate him.” And Long, toward the end of Pittsburgh Memoranda: “A city finds life when a human being / finds life, when he learns how to walk between / forgetting and remembering the self.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

Colt and Trial Horse

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, 1874-1927

Two measly fragments: Dana Ward’s reference to a “reverential feeling for art that moves on colt’s legs” in “Typing Wild Speech”—out of This Can’t Be Life (Edge, 2011)—that tenderness for the ungainly, the awkward, the uncoaxed geomancy of totting the earth by merely advancing. That, and William Carlos Williams’s play Many Loves (put together c. 1941), constructed of three single-act pieces. Initial title: Trial Horse No. 1. A trial horse being one put up as opponent for a champion in trial competitions or exhibitions, or for workouts. Williams in the figure of Hubert (“a poet—and dramatist in the making”) argues precisely for all the gawky grace and unfouled exuberance of any raw push to “enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter . . .” Against the derisive and skeptical Peter (“a man of considerable wealth”) who brings only brute rapacity (meaning formulaic, reliable, certain, adult) to art (“Trial, yes. The theater is a trial, / truly. It’s not a plaything. But / in the theater to kill you’ve got / to kill! With a hammer if need be . . . / Or they’ll walk out on you. . . .”) Williams:
                  I have a play, mature
      enough to suit you, which has been sketched
      scene for scene, act for act.
      But lacking experience, as you know,
      I have adopted this method
      of a trial-horse to approach it.
      And were it not for the bitterness
      which . . .

      Go on, Hubert.

      I say: when we see,
      on the stage, what we expect to see—
      I’m not speaking of circuses
      but something to turn our minds a little
      to the light—it should project
      above the coarseness of the materials . . .
      something else, in the words themselves,
      tragic without vulgarity. Seen—
      in the mind! The mind itself . . . today,
      without firearms and other claptrap,
      in its own tragic situation. We can’t
      do this at once but must restudy
      the means. If I wish to present love,
      dramatically today . . .



      I might do it—with a coalscuttle.


      By spitting in it.
Peter’s only reply, a negligible, vacuous attempted dismissal: “Puh!” (Williams’s “coalscuttle” inevitably recalls the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. See the report of Margaret Anderson in My Thirty Years’ War: “She wore a trailing blue-green dress and a peacock fan. One side of her face was decorated with a canceled postage stamp (two-cent American, pink). Her lips were painted black, her face powder was yellow. She wore the top of a coal scuttle for a hat, strapped on under her chin like a helmet. Two mustard spoons at the side gave the effect of feathers.”) Williams (writing c. 1939 about Kenneth Patchen’s work, though the words apply directly to Williams’s own, too, and to Ward’s wild and restlessly memorious prose and poetry—I think of Pound’s “nothing matters but the quality / of the affection— / in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind . . .”)—Williams identifies the “great theme”:
Love . . . divine and human, and, un-winking, what our life has done to it. To this he brings a structural device filling the page at its best for what he wants to say—scattered, jagged, irregular, with long explanatory titles—burdened with uncertainty.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

“Sentences as a refreshment . . .”

Gertrude Stein, 1874–1946

Smallish winter itches, though the approaching day is balmy. Disconcerted by the immodesty of its jut. (A sentence that only decided itself in its delivery—disconcerted largely by its empty reach, it latched itself to an innuendo’d salient, somewhat hurriedly, somewhat embarrassedly.) I think of what Gary Lutz says:
I write stand-alone sentences. I might fixate on three or four sentences a day. I’ll enlarge them to at least twenty-six-point type on the screen. I’ll futz around in their vitals, recontour their casings, and work a kind of reverse cosmetology on them to bring out any defining defects or birthmarks or swoonworthy uglinesses and whatnot. Only much later will one such sentence overcome its aloofness or diffidence and begin to make overtures to another sentence, which might be pages and pages away in the draft. The sentences eventually band together into paragraphs. The paragraphs, to me, are nervous little cliques or sororities of like-natured outcasts who put up with each other despite the friction.
Akin to what I maintain is my reading style: making prose plotless by the adamancy of my atomizing, that is, weighing each book sentence by singular sentence. (See Sir Philip Sidney’s “not speaking table talke fashion, or like men in a dreame, words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peasing each sillable of eache word by just proportion”—early demand to “recontour their casings.”) Peasing out of peise, v. < Anglo-Norman paiser, peiser, peisser, Anglo-Norman and Middle French peser (c1050 in Old French; French peser) to burden, oppress, grieve (a person) (c1050), to weigh (an object) (late 12th cent.), to consider, ponder, examine attentively (a person or thing) (end of the 12th cent.), to have a specified weight (c1170), to be heavy (c1200) < classical Latin pēnsāre to weigh, ponder, consider. A terrific word: it makes thinking itself material, something like a coin tumbling down into the slot of the mouth, burnished and tongue-palpable. Ought I ponder whether or not Lutz is slyly aping Gertrude Stein’s insistence that “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are”? Stein:
I can say that as often as I like and it always remains as it is, something that is.
      I said I found this out first in listening to Basket my dog drinking. And anybody listening to any dog’s drinking will see what I mean.
And I try to make my ears encumber that aberrantly loud knock of dog’s tongue against water, its final lingual materiality, its brusque affability. Gertrude Stein in How to Write (1931): “I return to sentences as a refreshment.” And:
      Grammar is restless and earned.
      Walking in can field a dance grammar is restless and earned.
. . .
      Is simplicity conviction or grammar and is simplicity more than put in.
      How whatever.
      Grammar is intense in dried again there and then.
      The question is if you have a vocabulary have you any need of grammar except for explanation that is the question, communication and direction repetition and intuition that is the question. Returned for grammar.
Grammar is intense in dried again there and then. Repetition syndrome. I think of Laura Riding’s complaint regarding “corruption of the reasons of poetry” in remarks “To the Reader” prefacing the Collected Poems (1938):
In poem-writing and poem-reading the stirring up of the poetic faculties has been a greater preoccupation than their proper use; the excitement of feeling oneself in a poetic mood has come to be regarded as adequate fulfillment both for the reader and the poet. Hence the frequent vulgarism ‘What is this poem about?’—when the reader feels that there is an element in a poem beyond that designed to evoke in him the flattering sensation of understanding more than he knows . . .
Isn’t one counterpoise to that “design” (prevalent hereabouts, a glut of the “era”) the kind of sentence-myopia that Lutz so intrepidatiously (and slowly) executes, all remnant sardony watered with joy? Against the “how whatever” sprints of mere grammar. “Smallish winter finches approach the day’s balm. Concerted in the modesty of their route.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bill Berkson / J. H. Prynne

Bill Berkson

In the Roland Pease-edited annual (deplorably now suspended) of “poems, translations & interviews,” Zoland Poetry No. 5 (2011), a lively interview with Bill Berkson, conducted by Thomas Devaney. In it, Berkson talks about “The Waste Land,” the use he made of it, and how it provided a serious initial point de départ and point de repère both (“I followed the notes to “The Waste Land.” So that gave me John Donne and Dante, Jessie Weston, The Golden Bough, John Webster, Ovid, and so on.”) Berkson, offering a plausible (and rarely so put, Eliot’s suasion amongst the avant-garde so spalled off by Williams’s constant bombardments, see Berkson’s own story of how, shortly after the appearance of “The Skaters” he remarked to Ashbery how it recalled “The Four Quartets, and he [Ashbery] said he’d always meant to read them, and probably would”) lineage:
One of the critics called it a “cinematographic” way of composing. So that business of one line put next to the other, phrases from diverse sources—I now realize how that persists with me. Frank O’Hara once introduced me at a reading at NYU by saying that I was the only young American poet making an interesting use of T. S. Eliot. How he figured that out I’ll never know. There’s a funny connection, too, between that brief phase of Eliot and what is loosely called Cubist poetry, “Lundi rue Christine” by Apollinaire or certain poems of Reverdy, the really adventurous French poets Eliot seems to have had no interest in. But then on to “Europe”: from “The Waste Land” to John Ashbery’s “Europe” seemed like a simple step.
Devaney’s query a simple “Simple?” And Berkson again:
No, but clear to me. “Europe” was, in those terms immediately comprehensible. Both “The Waste Land” and “Europe”—and this is, I think, key—allowed for a sense of format. Which is to say, whether it was Coolidge or Padgett, Dick Gallup or Ted Berrigan, Joe Ceravolo—those of us inspired by what John Ashbery was doing in the poems of The Tennis Court Oath, particularly “Europe,” each poet responded in his own way. Format was the handy aspect there. Ashbery was taking apart his native language, which had, because he was living a French life in Paris, become distant to him, his relation to language being already aslant with irony, as it is. The so-called “pulverized” language of “Europe” and those other poems was different from ours in that ours would not or had not yet composed itself. For myself, a nonsyntactical grid of words and phrases—or one where the syntax is slippery—allowed for a way of locating what I had. For the poems, or some of them, early on, all I had was a feeling for how to lay them out, some of which came from print culture generally, some from how “Europe” looked on the page, and otherwise from visual art and music. . . .
That “grid” and its “way of locating what I had”—largely because of late I keep turning to (making a feeble considered ruckus in) J. H. Prynne’s work—triggers a furtive reconnoitering of likes. It commenced with my reading of Berkson’s poem—quoted by Devaney, who notes its “unflagging sense of forward momentum”—“By Halves”:
do limits build
both sweet and cruel
or over to you off at
your compass studies,
visor at odd angles perforated,
plumb to sky
to service mouthful signage in pearly
cantina load where squawks from a ceiling,
headed down the demon slopes
for work place, total their sheer
carbon feed on an average night
that at any guardrail slick nails the morphological in bins?
Thus backup wealth lifts an ancient spume, glowering with grammar
whose joined bronze gives pause,
erect lapse paging glory, when wing is rag
Isn’t that of the untroubled ilk and near kin to something like:
At late stage the defect of scale scrapes off
the felt lining to slight down the huff, displaced
into wrong water. Split finish by large numbers
will cruise to punish the knife, in common rite
cuffed and bled to moral ennui, each wave mortal
with rapt digression. Who doesn’t count won’t
matter, leaf cover shimmers to greet day-care

blips on the cycle, citrus screened, doing a turn
on borrowed wheelskates. In the avertive cleft
of ‘an arithmetical curiosity’ a link itself blisters
to foil up front treatment, choosing up against
warded splines. Mis-timed by equity trap points
to run and run like colour all down the blade,
this scant fuel thins to vapour in vacant air.
Being a part of Prynne’s sequence Unanswering Rational Shore (Object Permanence, 2001). (The minor echo of Eliot’s “gathering fuel in vacant lots” entirely unanticipated, that is, unintended in my rather random selecting, noted only in the typing. Lo mismo’s salient upthrust.) Berkson, in the interview, recalls “trying to short-circuit any kind of anticipated meaning, to defeat the reader’s habitual expectations at all costs. I thought I wanted to write poems that didn’t mean anything.” And, later:
Then again, I came to this sort of joyful, but also scary realization that meaning is unavoidable—you have to watch your language, what it might be saying. I got more interested in poems with a presence of meaning, or in which meaning is a sort of felt presence—sometimes you feel you could get it, grasp and define it, and sometimes not, but you feel an impingement, an atmosphere where shifting connotations appear almost graspable. . . . With that came this other realization, that the scatter all fits, whether one intervenes or not, to make it so. As Beckett says, the mess gets accommodated.
Think of that—attending to what arranged language “might be saying,” that “presence of meaning”—against Prynne’s sense (spelled out in the 2008 talk “Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems”) of constructing the poem as a semantic field with “not meaning determining its pattern of expression, so much as pattern and pattern-violation generating their own tendencies of meaning—or perhaps we should call this ‘meaning’, in some second-order sense.” Prynne’s version of Berkson’s aim of short-circuitry: “When links in text-cohesion are violated or cut off, when extreme ambiguity displaces recognisable topic-focus, when discourse levels and fields of reference are switched abruptly and without sign-posts, these features may begin to comprise a second-order strategy of pattern-making in a new way.” Oddly, both Prynne and Berkson provide what I read as warnings / distinctions against such disruptings become “style” or mere “playfulness”—just another means in a supposed arsenal of techniques. Berkson compares the shiftings (“multiple meanings thicken the plot”) to Cubist doings and notes how Cubism’s successors Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky “took Cubism as design, a design style”:
It wasn’t composition like it was for Braque and Picasso, or even Gleizes and the other Parisian Cubists. Shifting planes—“planometrics,” they called it in midcentury art classes, when Cubism had become an easy teaching tool—for Gorky and Davis was a format into which you could plug whatever meaningful matter you were carrying.
(Nota bene, would-be Prynne acolytes.) Prynne’s own distinction puts enormous weight on claims of authorial intent. Of “pattern and pattern-violation generating their own tendencies of meaning,” he says: “I don’t think this is equivalent to post-modernist playfulness, where meaning is allowed to skim across a surface in a deliberately arbitrary way, because the use of difficulty as a method of poetic thought is different both in intention and effect from difficulty as a playground or a funfair.” Or, as Prynne’s lines seem to suggest in Kazoo Dreamboats or, On What There Is (Critical Documents, 2011), “phrasal turmoil in cap position” may offer one possible means to assay (“purchase grind on”) the lingual “scam of scams”:
I saw too by links of redaction in fluency, not yet perfect because by nature self-mutable even the bounds transient each to alter in replacement through pair logic overlay, in otherhood unfinished bearing phrasal turmoil in cap position, limit across rotation the corridor not self-invaded by sweetness each time in momentary batch flavour. Equalised to run its surplus attached to overdrive each word capsule clamped at reward issue upper to lower jaw purchase grind on this scam of scams.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Endlessness and Hurry

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

A hash of impositions and instabilities, how the day begins, grousing unreadily, stubble salting its chin. Out of what Williams (writing to Zukofsky, 28 January 1934) called “advice to the unborn as it were telling the world (of them) that life is endless and consists mostly in ripping down the scaffolding from the Grace of God”—he’s talking about a “two page blurb” called “The Element of Time”:
      If genius has anything to say in America it had better be strongwinded. Because a life, contrary to the classic opinion, is endless. There is plenty of time. And no hurry. Nobody ever overtakes anybody else. Longwindedness is always a competitor and has to be lived down but even that dies finally from living in its vacuum. Then genius has its chance. Nothing grows old.*
. . .
      I emphasize, it isn’t the mass of difficulties that need unhorse a genius. It is the slipping, sliding wastefulness of useless rushing about. There isn’t much to do. It’s just the flip of a word sometimes. One doesn’t have to live this kind of life, that kind of life. The only thing that has ever seemed to me to be important is never to yield an inch of what is to the mind important—and to let the life take care of itself . . .
. . .
      If anybody can hold to anything and cling to it long enough to have it be beaten into some shape by the holding and the onslaught, it will at least be refined enough for one to make out clearly its original futility. And even that would be a distinction.
Dashed off for James Laughlin (Williams calls him “Louglin”) at Harvard (“I advised him to throw it into the waste basket and maybe he’ll do so. I didn’t keep a copy.”) Seemingly Williams’s initial exchange with Laughlin, pre-Pound. Williams, lately turned fifty, is equally full of doubt and adamancy, modicums of defeat and furious purpose—see these lines out of a 20 June 1933 letter:
I don’t know what has come over me but at times I’m pretty well convinced it is the end of me as far as writing is concerned. Perhaps it is extreme fatigue though I look well enough. It is heartbreaking to toil at something and feel one’s interest grow less and less the more he works—panic finally. But you make a mistake if you take this to be pathetic. I’m not making excuses. All I mean is that when I can’t write any longer then I’ll be through with writing. Though I confess there’s nothing else.
Which makes sidelong tongue-cheek’d cheer of the “original futility” prescript seem astoundingly buoyant. (The letters, heavily Williams-sided, collected in the Barry Ahearn-edited The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky (Wesleyan UP, 2003), offer, in stretches, a terrific sense of “quotidian Williams,” that dash amalgam of croup and script, unbolted moroseness and sudden cheer: “Great weather since the rains. Birds sing me to sleep and wake me up. What singing! What luminous dumbbells. Excrement (expletive)!”
* I think of the definition of voice (“My Voice”) as “perseverance codified.” I think, too, of the opening of Hugh Kenner’s 1968 “Of Notes and Horses” (concerning Zukofsky’s “strongwinded”—“forty years in progress” and still, then, largely incomplete—“A”:
(In medias res) . . . when what was put on the page collaborates with what readers understand in its presence. The former is constant (more or less, despite editors’ tinkerings), the latter mutates with time, and given enough time, as with Homer, a spectacular inventory of mutations will accumulate. An Iliad totally (radically?) unlike ours glowed in the mind of Socrates. Until the collaborative process is moving the poem exists only as an unperformed score exists . . .

Monday, December 12, 2011

William Fuller’s “For Dally Kimoko”

William Fuller
(Collage by Tom Raworth of Photographs by Chuck Stabelton)

Pas grand chose. Thwarted by the routine chores of the day, its light slanting off southerly in a geometric splash of board-lengths, white with verges yellowing greasily. A proxy for color, drawing additives out of its surround, the way light seemingly caught in its purity usually does. Torn paper crows gusting through it, bound for town. A smallish rhumb line of sentence-making accrues in that “greasily.” A tagalong adverb crossing the meridian at an angle consistent to its imaginary precursors. One is the epigraph to J. H. Prynne’s 1997 piece For the Monogram. Out of editor Austin Farrer’s 1951 introduction to Leibniz’s Theodicy: “Why should the dog ever be displeased spontaneously?” (Leibniz is apparently making distinct the spontaneous and the voluntary: “many things occur in the mind, of itself, but not chosen by it.”) The second greasy “precursor” (because, nearly unbeknownst to me, I’d been aligning Prynne’s line with it all day), another doggish sentence (wagged by its adverbial tail), out of William Fuller’s Hallucination (Flood Editions, 2011): “A happy, inquisitive, spontaneous dog, eating hungrily.” Out of the lovely “For Dally Kimoko”:
Who forgets to perfect enjoyment flakes apart from the force of a will to fail. After which, claims encumber thought. They cause the phone to be handed to her, into which she speaks, then hands it to me, and I speak, then a voice speaks, then several voices speak, and a shadow breaks apart. To be valid, this episode must be imputed to those who are absent. But why be anxious? Why care about what else could be possible when the true goal involves having all our senses register every aspect of physical existence constantly and unremittingly? Such an attainment would fill up our hearts without resorting to paradox. Any estimated shortfall would still leave adequate amounts set aside to satisfy our need not to fluctuate. Even a dog knows this. A happy, inquisitive, spontaneous dog, eating hungrily. When in the future a kind of perpetual hum is heard, which grows louder as temperatures rise, strong hands will take command and clear light will darken us. At night a heavy body will be thrown against the floor and a tambourine will vibrate.
Reverie of a bodily attunement and presence functioning so completely and purely it thwarts the castigate tendency of the mind’s will. Is there a complicated math of desire’s irremediable shortfall here, though? If “all our senses register every aspect of physical existence constantly and unremittingly”—why the subsequent intrusion of doubt couched in the lingo of the banking primer: “Any estimated shortfall would still leave adequate amounts set aside to satisfy our need not to fluctuate”? Is that the impertinence and press of “claims,” their encumbrance seemingly a kind of second-guessing? Why the odd pointing to Africa—after the initial nod to soukous guitarist Dally Kimoko of the Congo, the palpable longing that “strong hands . . . take command and clear light . . . darken us,” the increasing heat, the hint of violence? Is it arguable that the piece itself “flakes apart” / “breaks apart” under the welter of its anxieties (thus viscerally enacting its willed argument)? Arriving here (my own buoyancy a little drubbed by the relentlessness of my queries, possibly opaque, or addled) I think of William Carlos Williams’s 5 August 1932 reply to Zukofsky, writing after receipt of An “Objectivists” Anthology:
      ’s a wonderful book, a distinguished object, and the preface is like the Bible for impressiveness and impenetrability—it’s a veritable glass miggle for slipperiness.
(Williams adds, rather stupefyingly, that “the most impressive feature of the whole is that it is a whole and like nothing else I have ever observed.” Williams seemed routinely to go marble-mouthed in any attempt to talk up the pleasures of Zukofsky’s work.)

Friday, December 09, 2011


J. H. Prynne
(Photograph by Eirik Steinhoff)

Rather stymied by the press of my own habits, their hegemony in the usual lurch. Cortázar: “The ego refuses to compromise, an eye devouring the world—without seeing it.” Reading, under the slender stalk-delivered cone of a clip-on light, J. H. Prynne, out of “Tips on Reading”:
When a reading of text has proceeded by laborious stages within the test-rig of detailed study, pause to allow the overall effect to integrate back into a coherent human reading, and ponder whether your life may even have been changed, just a little, or your beliefs about large questions; whether your habits of feeling have been flattered or boastfully challenged . . .
And thinking: the “test-rig” of my quotidian writing’s begun, merely, to flatter my habit. No pleasantly unreachable itch to it, no adrenalin-charge or massy onslaught of percept in the offing. (Cortázar: “I wonder whether it occurs to him to suddenly consider the absurd, as a comparison with the cosmic, whether he sometimes takes a step back so the monster in front of his eyes turns back into the fly hovering in the air. Techniques, nothing more. Baruch Spinoza, what a swine.”) You see: pure effect, a sleight of hand game, easily played. Longing for a dry hesitancy, an exactness to thwart the usual ready gush, a cursive mingling that is sere and serene. (Prynne, “A Gold Ring Called Reluctance”: “The private / recourse that might also reclaim the transfer / is our hesitancy. Whenever we / find our unwillingness a form on which to pause.”)

A couple of inches of cakey snow shoveled off the walk. Scrupulously—see Latin scrūpulus, diminutive of scrūpus, rough or hard pebble—a word Cicero put into lingo, uneasiness welling to a nub. Or anxiety weighing in. An intent to name and delineate the things of the world with prudence (contracted < prōvidēns < classical Latin prōvidēre, to foresee), though all such finicking be, possibly, futile, names being such monsters of uncertainty, and liable to become flies . . . Prynne, out of The White Stones (1969):
Mouth Open

To set a name to it, hold them
down and ask merely
are they shouting, with both feet
planted and leaning towards me

                    the note forming no con-
                    sequence, they gulp the
                    landscape before them

Alert, to the name of an occasion
which is theirs as I take
it from them, the offered gift
met by the purest sound

                    I cannot hold this
                    it is a name: shouting
                    or leaning, on the single

earth which is below them, each one
The name itself: temporary holding tank, “purest sound,” momentary stay.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tu m’

Marcel Duchamp, “Tu m’,” 1918

Is it Leopardi who writes of “the acid-burned hole in the continuum / that hole called life”? I doodad it up considerably. Memory is a disburdening. A gash in the screen the constantly projected movie leaks through. I look at Marcel Duchamp’s final painting Tu m’ (1918), the title a truncating of tu m’emmerde or tu m’ennui (you bore me): bicycle wheel, corkscrew, hat rack. Color samples. Gash with safety pin spanning it, futile repair. Three templates for Stoppages. Pointing index. Self-referential whimsy amounting to a décor entirely habitable, sleek and preening with self-reverence. There’s something fundamentally slippery about Duchamp, a mercurial “I” providing ready clownish countenance for a wholly protean “self” in its obliging routines for achievement’s lack. Gianfranco Baruchello, talking to Henry Martin in Why Duchamp (Documentext / McPherson & Co., 1985) suggests Duchamp’s is a “provisional” ego:
It’s an ‘I’ that’s not present or respected as a structural part of the person, it’s an ‘I’ that the person uses when and if and however he wants, and it’s not at all the ‘I’ that defines the person, what defines the person is his ability to take his distances from the ‘I.’ What makes his works seem mad is that you can’t see the ‘I’ that’s involved with them or responsible for them.
Or is Duchamp’s an “exploded” I? Baruchello (he’s referring to Duchamp’s remarks to Pierre Cabanne in Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp):
He said that the meanings of certain words ‘explode’ and leave dictionary definitions behind them. And all of his work could be interpreted as a way of giving meaning and value to things that don’t make sense from simply dictionary points of view.
Caustic inevitability, bilious steam sliding out under the door. The door to the room that is keeping one here, typing. A salience of lost initiative is heard burning out in the streets: “my fire in regard to its execution.” And: “I had had enough of it, and I stopped, but with no abrupt decision.”

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Berger, et alii

John Berger, c. 1962

Early morning. Scuttling inveterate sleeplessness. (Sleeplessness, the longest single-vowelled word in English, I recall being instructed. And countered: what about Tennesseelessness, what Wallace Stevens captured in that jar? It shined like a firefly . . .) Tossed insomniac amongst fey slivers of sense. Thinking of some dire need to prod the spurious world with a pointed stick, to alleviate its surfeit and fulsomeness by means of a venting. Whence’d fly up countless black birds, or spout putty-colored geysers. The world pie. The meaning of gonflé. Stuffed up, full of itself, disallowing, by its tenor the vehicle of one’s doubt. John Berger, out of the 1958 novel A Painter of Our Time:
August 14
I should never have been a painter. Only the moral obligation to work makes me persist.

August 15
When ideas and actions are judged by their intention or sincerity instead of by their results, it is one of the paradoxes of human nature that confidence tricksters thrive. . . .
      Anything is justified in art, but everything must be related. There is nothing that the painter need be forbidden to do. Nothing at all. But when he has finished, what he has done must be judged in relation to the always different and always present struggle of men to realize their potentiality more fully . . .
And, out of Bento’s Sketchbook:
One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, to deadly. One protests (by building a barricade, taking up arms, going on a hunger strike, linking arms, shouting, writing) in order to save the present moment, whatever the future hold.
      To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.
A statement that so thoroughly enunciates what writing (particularly writing here) means that I neglect to see how pertinent it is, too, to the nascent push of the occupying 99%. I think of Beckett’s sapped enunciation (in Proust) regarding “the poisonous ingenuity of Time” and how it indefatigably locates itself within the individual human being, who’s sapped—he, too—“in the haze of our smug will to live, of our pernicious and incurable optimism”:
The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours.
Sense of menace residing in that “smug will to live”—as if mere volitive ongoingness suffied—is it that that allows one’s being “reduced to a zero.” Gonflé. Fey slivers of sense. Berger says: “People hold books in a special way—like they hold nothing else. They hold them not like inanimate things but like ones that have gone to sleep. Children often carry toys in the same manner.” My writing, my toy, my sleep. One continues out of a sense of necessary exacerbation. Roiling the moment, churning its liquors immiscible. Inconsequentially embedding in each daily “reach” what Barthes calls—seeing it contained in photographs—“this imperious sign of my future death.” Oof.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Bento’s Sketchbook

John Berger

John Berger, in Bento’s Sketchbook (Pantheon, 2011), quoting Spinoza:
The more an image is joined with many other things, the more often it flourishes.
      The more an image is joined with many other things, the more causes there are by which it can be excited.
Identified thus: Ethics, Part V, Proposition XIII, Proof. I long to make of that an argument for plethora and welter, clot and burgeon. (Just now I walked under a series of sycamores, each brimming with noisy crows, skirl and abate, splutter and caw.) I long to see in the implacable surge of “mere” incongruous joining a mimicry of worlding. Berger (“The Moment of Cubism”):
The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art. The incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it, is the secret of art. What is the meaning of that incongruity and the shock which accompanies it? It is to be found in the distinction between the actual and the desirable. All art is an attempt to define and make unnatural this distinction.
Words, mustered, to placate and measure amorphous desire. (Spell of greasy intangibility ascending into the easy gloom of a fugue state, the air’s “molecules”—invention of my flight—seemingly disporting out of their usual grainy regularity.) Writing seems so unanchored, fraught by its perpetual lambency, its immaterial way of grazing, barely making contact with the world. How writing longs to be drawing. Berger: “When I’m drawing . . . I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated, but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning. . . . When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells.” (Handwriting—execrable, torturous, smeary, wayward—handwriting isn’t writing. Berger: “Write by hand with a knuckle bleeding. Like this blood underlines some of the words.” Again: handwriting isn’t writing.) Berger’s plethora, pilings up, a chrestomathy:
Soft. Medium. Hard. Traces made by the soft graphite are jet black like thick hair, and traces made by the hard are like hair turning grey. Graphite, as skins do, has its own oils. It is a very different substance from the burnt ash of charcoal. Its sheen when applied on paper is like the sheen on lips.

‘Lace is a kind of white writing which you can only read when there’s skin behind it.’

      I’m drawing with black ink (Sheaffer) and wash and spit, using my finger rather than a brush. Beside me on the grass, where I’m sitting, are a few sheets of coloured Chinese rice paper. I chose them for their cereal colours. Maybe later I will tear shapes from them and use them as collage. . . .
      Irises grew in Babylon. Their name came later, from the Greek goddess of the rainbow. The French fleur de lys was an iris. . . .

      The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)—generally known as Benedict (or Bento) de Spinoza—earnt his living as a lens-grinder and spent the most intense years of his short life writing On the Improvement of the Understanding and the Ethics, both of which were only published posthumously. We know from other peoples’ souvenirs and memories of the philosopher that he also drew. He enjoyed drawing. He carried a sketchbook around with him. After his sudden death—perhaps from silicosis, a consequence of his grinding lenses—his friends rescued letters, manuscripts, notes, but apparently didn’t find a sketchbook. Or, if they did, it later got lost.
      For years now, I have imagined a sketchbook with his drawings in it being found. I didn’t know what I hoped to find in it. Drawings of what? Drawn in what kind of manner? De Hooch, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Gerard Dou were his contemporaries. For a while in Amsterdam he lived a few hundred metres away from Rembrandt, who was twenty-six years his elder. Biographers suggest the two of them probably met. As a draughtsman Spinoza would have been an amateur. I wasn’t expecting great drawings in the sketchbook, were it to be found. I simply wanted to reread some of his words, some of his startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes.

The centre of the city of Dresden was still razed to the ground when I first met Erhard Frommhold there in the early 1950s. The Allied bombing of the city on February 13, 1945, had killed in a single night 100,000 civilians; most of them burnt to death in temperatures that reached 1800° Fahrenheit.

“It’s a drawing of Maria Muñoz, the Spanish dancer . . .

“We call it the Bridge, because our weight is suspended between our left hand palm down on the floor and our right foot also flat of the floor. Between those two fixed points the whole body is expectant, waiting, suspended.

“The paper became grey with alterations and cancelations. The drawing didn’t get better, but gradually she, about to stand up, was more insistently there.”

John Berger, “From a Woman’s Portrait by Willem Drost”

“This pupil of Rembrandt was called Willem Drost. He was probably born in Leiden. In the Louvre in Paris there is a Bathsheba painted by him which echoes Rembrandt’s painting of the same subject painted in the same year. Drost must have been exactly contemporary with Spinoza. We don’t know where or when he died.

“She is not looking at the spectator. She is looking hard at a man she desired, imagining him as her lover. This man could only have been Drost. The only thing we know for certain about Drost is that he was desired precisely by this woman.

“. . . To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody can reach in this life to feeling immortal.”

Monday, December 05, 2011

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner, out of the novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House, 2011), talking about the narrative impossibility of some grand percentage of one’s experience, periods of “pure transition . . . possessed of no intrinsic content,” periods ascribed, albeit only in retrospect, with “a sense of directionality,” pointing toward the eventual arrival of what will subsequently provide their definition, periods Lerner calls “dilated, detached, strangely self-sufficient,” and adding quickly, “that’s not really right”—for such amorphous reaches leveraged up out of the continuum can only be defined negatively:
Not the little lyric miracle and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time. But this was true only for the duration of one of these seemingly durationless periods; figure and ground could be reversed, and when one was in the midst of some new intensity, kiss or concussion, one was suddenly composed exclusively of such moments, burning always with this hard, gemlike flame. But such moments were equally impossible to represent precisely because they were ready-made literature, because the ease with which they could be represented entered and canceled the experience where life was supposed to be its most immediate, when the present managed to differentiate itself with violence, life was at its most generic, following the rules of Aristotle, and did not make contact with the real but performed such contact . . .
Later in the novel, Lerner quotes Ortega y Gasset saying something equally fraught with doubt regarding the veracity of captured experience: “By speaking, by thinking, we undertake to clarify things, and that forces us to exacerbate them, dislocate them, schematize them. Every concept is in itself an exaggeration.” Lerner’s protagonist, one Adam Gordon, young American poet scooting through obscure and prestigious literary fellowship monies in Madrid—clearly modeled on Lerner himself (one reads with a distinct sense, not that the writer’s own doings are poorly camouflaged, but that the book itself hardly wants to be taken as a novel, wants to inhabit some other, shiftier, or more forgiving, ground, Sebaldian or Bolañoesque, for reasons of its own)—largely considers himself a fraud, what William Matthews used to call a “beautiful fake.” And he is—by turns wholly insufferable and grimly amusing in the completeness of his narcissist throes, damned and saved by the utter thoroughness of his self-consciousness (I recall somebody talking of a John Hawkes novel, Second Skin I think, wondering aloud if it’s at all possible to like a novel whose narrator is, at bottom, unlikeable). Lerner’s Gordon seemingly sees the narcissism / fraudulence as part of a period affliction:
Who wasn’t squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital or whatever you wanted to call it, lying every time she said “I”; who wasn’t a bit player in a looped infomercial for the damaged life? If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak. I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former, rejecting the political claims repeatedly made by the so-called left for a poetry radical only in its unpopularity. I had been a small-time performance artist pretending to be a poet, but now, with an alarming fervor, I wanted to write great poems.
The supposed “ease” of the “ready-made”—literature made of literature—performativity’s routine and wily dance, is that what lies at the core of Lerner’s—and the age’s—disaffection? (So conceptualism’s ostentatiously surrendering of the device: it’s all shill copying, arms akimbo with a look of preternatural boredom at the routine.) John Berger, out the Bento’s Sketchbook (Pantheon, 2011), a thing he thrice repeats, a kind of mystical intoning: “We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.” Which is a warning against contemporaneity’s smug refusals and bright accruals both, the peculate insincerity of its knowings and the unplumbed meagreness of its not-knowings. Berger writes to decry the difference, to insist that duration be embedded in the durationless:
The challenge of drawing is to make visible on the paper not only discrete, recognizable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance. And, being one substance, it harasses the act of drawing. If the lines of a drawing don’t convey this harassment the drawing remains a mere sign. The lines of a sign are uniform and regular: the lines of a drawing are harassed and tense. Somebody making a sign repeats an habitual gesture. Somebody making a drawing is alone in the infinitely extensive.
A Lerner version of which may be (he is talking about the “narrative function” of cigarettes “as bridge or exit strategy,” about how “the little cylinders” provide “a prefabricated motivation and transition,” integrating event and extent): “Happy were the ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, ages of such perfect social integration that no drug was required to link the hero to the whole.” Except that the “extensive” here is no longer the world (its “all possible paths”), but literature: see Georg Lukács’s opening to The Theory of the Novel (1920): “Happy were the ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths—ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar . . . The world is wide and yet it is like a home.”

Friday, December 02, 2011

E. G. Burrows, 1917-2011

E. G. Burrows, 1917-2011

Heard—reported by radio, aptly enough—of the recent death of E. G. (Edwin Gladding) Burrows (b. 23 July 1917 in Dallas, Texas—d. 20 November 2011 in Edmonds, Washington). I say aptly because of Burrows’s long career in public broadcasting, work done, it seems, concurrent with an unstopped and nigh-constant attention to writing poetry. (I sense Burrows being prolific in the magazines, and skint by the books.) At Ithaca House, I printed Burrows’s The House of August (1985). Accuracy of seeing, curiosity bolstered by apprehending, particularity of diction, love of the natural world, game and wily enough to comprehend the ineradicability of human foibles. Other books include: The Arctic Tern and Other Poems (Grove Press, 1957)—finalist for the National Book Award, Man Fishing (Sumac, 1969), Kiva (Ithaca House, 1976). A nod here to a neglected. Three poems, dated roughly 1960, 2001, 2003:
Nicias to the Athenians

The sea’s on end, a scoured
plate on my mind’s mad edge,
red, with all the wrong ships.
I wash them with my sleeve
swabbing the grit of sails
from that bowl like a scrub-
woman, still their yards glint.

Where is my sister stood
in morning’s gold motion
motionless, held the cold
flat grape dish with its freight
of iced fruit toward my mouth?
Did I see her comb snarls
of sunlight from her hair?
The door closed while I slept,
the fruit grew plated beaks.
The sea is that dish, the sea
poison with tainted sails,
a shield scenic with war,
itself an act of war.
It is my mind that flows
from the blue tilted bowl.

The lie in wait for me
those ships like spit out seeds.
An ill sort, stabbed by stones
in the kidney, too long
camped among damp meadows,
I am devoid of zeal.
Eat of my body, plant
your teeth in me, anchors.
I have no taste, only
acidity of time.
I have the yellow flesh
of one fifteen years turned
over the war’s slow fire,
tough, unpalatable,
yet the first and last course
served up by demagogues.
I am the old morsel,
reliable raisin,
but when I am nibbled
to nothing, when the skin
is peeled back from the shrunk
comedy of my core,
who will nourish their war?

There are no soldiers here.
They have run together
like unfired rust and rose,
the one color valor
smudged on the ware of weeds.
Between the long door and
the sun my sister stood
holding their bodies’ shards
like dolls’ limbs in her hands,
wet with her sallow wine.

Athens, my mind runs down.
Trumpets whisper behind
the hill, the ships lean in.
Was it empire you saw
in a pot of wild doves,
dukedoms of Sicily,
docile and spice-odored
to the nostrils, heaving
the oracular dregs?
That scent is blown, that feast
consumed, and Athens ends
here in this outcountry
like a drop of blood on
the outstretched fingertip.
The world’s on end. Come, cup
of the cold sea, pour death.

Camping Out

I watched the nesting redstart
when we camped by Lake Winnepesaukee.
The tent pegs pulled out in soft soil.
Rain made pawprints on the canvas.

So much clings to the shoes,
the old shoes must be discarded,
but we’re fools to think that does it:
burning the scraps.

I listened for the rain at Mt. Monadnock,
for the barred owl on a tent peak
among scrub pines in Michigan.
I can hear my father stir

and the cot creak. The flap opens.
He goes out and never returns
though the coffee steams on the grill
and the redstart sings in the alders.


Two above me rattling
in agile dogfight hugely
exuberant I thought they were
small hawks they were kingfishers
this August the old pursuit
and nipping at heels joy
of the genially royal and tail-spinning.

There’s nothing I’d rather do:
whoop and holler and backtalk
over the banal marina
and boat dock above the pawky
rock doves and bawling gulls
on their outposts I am tired
of the dull wait or the brawling
over schools of the meek and tasteless.
I’d rather spar and peel off.
I’d rather rattle.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

“Cruel hand . . .”

English Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Sapped and distracted. What if I do a little housecleaning, dumping off a rat’s nest of stray pronuntiationes in a fever of splicing? (To droop untowardly indicates humility.) It’s odd to think of Marianne Moore quarrelling. She sees fit to belatedly bromide regarding it (out of The Dial: A Retropective”):
To some contributors—as to some non-contributors—The Dial and I in particular, may have seemed quarrelsome, and it is regrettable that manners should be subordinated to matter. Mishaps and anomalies, however, but served to emphasize for me the untoxic soundness of most writers. And today, previous victims of mine have to dread from me, as pre-empting the privilege of the last word, nothing more than solicitude that all of us may write better.
Likely right, though isn’t there something always a little smug about putting away one’s bad manners? (To behave decorously indicates a sensibility arriviste.) Thoreau’s talking about clothing made by the “factory system” when he notes that “the principal object is not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.” So it goes, too, for solicitudinous non-aggravarians. Or, as Thoreau protested (to Daniel Ricketson, 18 August 1857) of nature-writer Wilson Flagg: “He is not alert enough. He wants stirring up with a pole. He should practice turning a series of somersets rapidly, or jump up and see how many times he can strike his feet together before coming down.” And:
His style, as I remember, is singularly vague . . . before I got to the end of the sentences, I was off the track. If you indulge in long periods, you must be sure to have a snapper at the end. As for style of writing, if one has anything to say, it drops from him simply and directly, as a stone falls to the ground. There are no two ways about it, but down it comes, and he may stick in the points and stops wherever he can get a chance. New ideas come into this world somewhat like falling meteors, with a flash and an explosion, and perhaps somebody’s castle roof perforated. To try to polish the stone in its descent, to give it a peculiar turn, and make it whistle a tune, perchance, would be of no use, if it were possible. Your polished stuff turns out not to be meteoric, but of this earth. However, there is plenty of time, and Nature is an admirable schoolmistress.
Par contre Flagg, who outlived Thoreau, called him “a poet, rather than a philosopher”:
The luminous medium through which he saw all things appertaining to nature incapacitated him for logical reasoning. He lived upon his intuitions. His style of writing was very simple, occasionally flashing with brilliant metaphors, which he rarely used, but which always came unsought, and were not elaborately nailed to his sentences, like pictures on a wall. His satire is inimitable, and he utters his paradoxes with such an air of inspiration that you admire them in spite of their absurdity. He saw visions and described them like a prophet, but they were unintelligible to men of the world. He saw truths, but they were for the imagination, not the reason. “I would,” he said, “rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox-cart with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.”
Another route to that “untoxic soundness” the anomalies boast of. I think of Henry James’s remarks regarding Thoreau’s epigone John Burroughs (“a sort of reduced, but also more humorous, more available, and more sociable Thoreau”) : “He is . . . intimate with the question of apples, and he treats of it in a succulent disquisition which imparts to the somewhat trivial theme a kind of lyrical dignity. He remarks, justly, that women are poor apple-eaters.” (To contend “in sequent toil” indicates mere forwardness . . .)