Monday, November 29, 2004

Nice trip to Chicago. Emily's mother and my extended family got on, as I hoped and expected, like a house afire. We escaped the suburbs twice, once to the Art Institute (where, walking backward, I noticed for the first time how Rothko quotes Monet's haystack paintings) and once to Wicker Park, where I visited Myopic Books for the second time and picked up Claudia Rankine's wrenching Don't Let Me Be Lonely and Caroline Knox's delightful first book, The House Party. I think I've talked about Knox here before, but in the context of last week's conversation I now see her as a kind of bridge figure between Tate and Ashbery—in fact this book has a blurb by Tate on its back cover. There's a lot of Tate-ian whimsy to her writing and a great deal of that surrealist frisson that his best poems manage; there's also a whiff of James Merrill's ironic take on WASP manners and privileges. But I find her language much more intense in its playfulness than Tate's, and more esoteric in its range of reference. She's capable of what can seem like a synthesis of Tate's American surrealism, Ashbery's Moebius narratives, and O'Hara's high-cultural insouciance, as in the delightful and strange "Hittites":

Hittites rode by on contemporary village machines
I don't speak Hittite; Christine does, but she wasn't there

Yaz the Distinguished acknowledged
the puffing of the populace
a Nubian held aloft his plate of kippers

Your eyes will be the eyes of the basilisk, my lamb
when you behold how I left the rice
boil over while I watched them go by

Next Saturday is Hittite Saturday!
As far away as Ravenna, people will be in touch with their feelings!
What fun she is! And the fun comes wrapped in mystery: the odd slippages of word and syntax ("left the rice / boil over"), the Biblical intonation, the silliness of "kippers," all become an objective correlative to a feeling not unlike the combination of a hiccup, a laugh, and a lump in the throat. Her writing is powered more by unusual words and word-combinations than either Tate's or Ashbery's is; Ashbery seems to think in sentences while Tate's is a prosody of the paragraph. I like it a lot. Under the influence of her book and Mary Jo Bang's latest (their senses of humor are similar, though Mary Jo's is darker) I wrote this on the plane home:
Alice, or Awkward

A game girl-shape came glimmering through the dusk,
clattering goth gestures with her spine, hair, and hands.
"Fly," she cried, "for the father of this fane has fled, alread-
y, took the books and the bricks, battered sheer matter
through force of flattery, and hatted, cored a door
in the original apple to abscond unbonded."
She whirled leaving two tears unshaped in the air
panned by her face, long lens to the brain,
foregrounding grotesque foreshortenings of a limb's
apery. To speak of bees—buzz, buzz—for Alice was not the name
of the unmasked damask dancer who twirled diagonally to drill
at an angle sure to miss the deep heart's floor.
Someone had blundered and well—meanwhile mittened Judge Toby
sniffed up snuff and withheld his sneeze
like the word from a beard—or cloud!—that fails to find its mark
in the actual dark breathing and beating room
to which our undergound girl had furled herself, from which green cellary
we would not soon choose to depart.

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