Monday, January 20, 2003

Cornell in its infinite wisdom ignores federal holidays, and seems particularly okay with giving a thumb in the eye to its African American students and employees by holding the first day of classes today, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Now on one level, the whole Great-Man's-Birthday thing strikes me as a little odd. It's always a man, isn't it—are there any national holidays named for a woman? I can't think of any, at least not in this country. There's something thoroughly patriarchal and anti-communitarian about the whole institution. I suppose "President's Day" is a weird compromise—Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays collapsed into one easy-to-use bank holiday that, by implication, is also Chester A. Arthur's Day and William Jefferson Clinton's Day. Have a cigar, boys!

Some fraternity has put a poster over the Cornell Bookstore (actually it's just the Cornell Store—the de-emphasis of books seems slightly sinister to me, even though everyone calls it The Bookstore) announcing something along the lines of a "National Heritage Reconciliation Day." On the poster is a crude drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee shaking hands. I think it falls more into the category of offensively ridiculous than ridiculously offensive, but if it weren't for the howling winter winds I'd swear I was living in a state governed by somebody with a name like Fob James.

My first class is top-heavy with male engineering students. I like engineers, actually: they have keen analytical skills and have less to unlearn than your average Arts and Sciences freshman. Very quiet, almost sullen, as I go over the requirements, the films we're studying (see below), my draconian attendance policy, etc. Maybe they're just tired. Or maybe they were reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and how they weren't being allowed to celebrate it in the usual fashion (i.e., sleeping in).

Got the reading list for the Contemporary Poetry & Poetics class that I'll be taking. It's an exciting and eclectic list, including many writers who I'm only glancingly familiar with from journals and a number I've never heard of. I've certainly never read an entire book by most of them. In what I believe will be the order of encounter:
Nick Piombino, Theoretical Objects
Juan Goytisolo, State of Siege
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
Agha Shahid Ali, Rooms are Never Finished
Billy Collins, Nine Horses (do I actually have to buy this one?)
Adrienne Rich, Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998
Zoe Angelsey, ed. Listen Up! Spoken Word Poetry
Meena Alexander, Illiterate Heart
Joy Harjo, How We Became Human
Ammiel Alcalay, From the Warring Factions
Daniel Davidson, Culture
John Ashbery, Chinese Whispers
Lucille Clifton, Blessing the Boats
Barrett Watten, Bad History
Phew! It's going to be a hell of a ride. If I can give even half of these serious attention I think it will seriously broaden my poetry horizons. Despite the best intentions, being in a PhD program where you've chosen to focus on Modernism tends to create blinders. The only contemporary poetry I'm really "up" on are the new books being produced by my peers and the semi-canonical old New American stuff. I'm shaky on hardcore Language poetry and shamefully ignorant of what I suspect falls under the umbrella of ethnopoetics. And except for France (somewhat), I know next to nothing about contemporary poetry in other countries. Physician, heal thyself.

I do have a rather sizable and diverse poetry collection (more poetry books than I have CDs, to evoke the odd standard put forth on the Poetics list not too long ago), accumulated when I was living in the Bay Area. I just haven't had time to read every book that I acquired in that mad and hazy period where I was making enough money to buy all the books I could eat but couldn't afford a decent apartment.

I would like to say a word or two here about the last book of contemporary poetry that I managed to read in its entirety: Stephanie Strickland's V. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to access the online portion of the book ( but the printed portions, "Losing L'una" and "WaveSon.nets" are very beautiful and lyrically rich, crammed with an erudition whose condensation makes it possible for the reader to skim over its surface in a pleasantly cerebral fever. The book is in large part an encounter with the work and life of Simone Weil, who I know little about—but I feel, after reading this book, that I know a little more. A book of poetry that actually teaches you something is a rare and special pleasure, one that I've also gotten out of Susan Howe and Brenda Hillman. Weil's Judeo-Christian (I think this term should be applied as literally as possible) ethics, as rendered by Strickland, are reminiscent of Emmanuel Levinas' impassioned philosophy of otherness. Here's a taste of "TITA: The Incandescent Thought About" from "Losing L'una" that I wish I could quote in its entirety:
As the reed, torn from its roots
and cut to a flute whose whole song is longing, so too
the heart, made to be broken. Consent

to be broken is difficult
to give, for we imagine

either powerful or powerless. Passion
the beloved, life, superdense

globular clusters, dispersing universe and the stars
it harbors, a nuclear forge
in the carried along scattering fall, multiversical

clones—or open clusters
like the Pleiades, the motion of a starfish
arm. Isomorphic?
Isn't that gorgeous? In her braininess and intense focus upon desire and the way it unfolds within a system or systems of thought (here the astronomical mingles with the theo-philosophical) she reminds me of Anne Carson, but with a much sharper ear.

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