Monday, February 28, 2005

I've just read Dancing in Odessa in a single breathless go. I can't recall the last time I read a contemporary book of such unabashed lyricism, erotic and ecstatic and elegiac all at once. I found myself at moments wanting to resist the dark glamor Kaminsky finds in his own heritage: his personal history as an immigrant, and as the Russian Jewish child of mingling historical disasters (the Holocaust, Stalinism). There are flights of beauty in this book that I've come to find suspicious in American poetry, which is a sad state of affairs both for poetry and for me; I suspect them of dazzling my eyes in order to hide some threadbareness in the poet's thought, or else I worry about the personae such glamors are often set up to serve, the bardic personality I can't quite believe still possible in an era of degraded eloquence and baldfaced lies. But Ilya Kaminsky just might be the real thing, and maybe I'm just jealous of the intensity with which he seems to have lived his young life and the fierceness of his attachments and the courage or perhaps naivety (though I somehow doubt this) it must have required for him to Whitmanianly present himself on the page. That is, none of what I'm tempted to call the "character issues" would matter if he didn't have a remarkable command over the English language. It's not his first language and the poetry occasionally has the quality of translated poetry—translated very well, with its East European exuberances (exclamation points!!! and forbidden words like "soul" and Happiness" and especially "dancing," again and again!) intact. I hope he is not an exception or an American in Russian drag; I hope he is truly making a contribution to poetry and making his own intensity of spirit and vision a little more available to the rest of us. The book reads very much as a book, as a kind of far-ranging memoir, with a lot of the juicy narrative content which often makes me impatient but here seems of a piece with the urgent intensity of telling that is this poetry's reason for being. It's the project of the book (in the sense of projection, making an arc) that makes the individual poems work for me; encountered alone in a journal I might mistake them for ordinary American solipsism or one of those tedious ekphrasis-to-history poems. The wholeness of the book and its sense of something beginning (a blurb by Anthony Hecht on the back cover paraphrases Emerson on Whitman by predicting "a brilliant career") are what make it possible for Kaminsky to generate an "authenticity-effect" that I am willing to accept.

Here's a particularly beautiful poem that ends a sequence of love poems collectively entitled "Natalia":

                   "You will die on a boat from Yalta to Odessa"
                          — a fortune teller, 1992

What ties me to this earth? In Massachusetts,
the birds force themselves into my lines—
the sea repeats itself, repeats, repeats.

I bless the boat from Yalta to Odessa
and bless each passenger, his bones, his genitals,
bless the sky inside his body,
the sky my medicine, the sky my country.

I bless the continent of gulls, the argument of their order.
The wind, my master
insists of the joy of poplars, swallows,—

bless one woman's brows, her lips
and their salt, bless the roundness
of her shoulder. Her face, a lantern
by which I live my life.

You can find us, Lord, she is a woman dancing with her eyes closed
and I am a man arguing with this woman
among nightstands and tables and chairs.

Lord, give us what you have already given.
I look forward to meeting this man.
A blissfully brain-free weekend. Emily left for New York yesterday, so Bogie and I were bachelors. Did a certain amount of lying around listening to public radio, then rewarded myself for being so good by finally picking up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (a steal at $19.99—sometimes it pays to wait). I wasn't sure I would like this game: whereas a lot of people enjoy letting their ids loose in video and role-playing games that give you a choice between good and evil, my overdeveloped superego or maybe just an old-fashioned sense that derring-do must be backed up by a veneer of righteousness (Pres. Bush can surely relate) invariably has me rescuing maidens, slaying dragons, petting puppies, etc. Now Vice City has been praised for its open-endedness, but in actual fact your destiny has been predetermined: you're the bad guy, plain and simple. Another push toward evil comes in the fact that simply getting used to the controls means running over dozens of pedestrians, soemtimes twice. (Oddly, running people over rarely attracts the attention of the police, even if it's a cop you've run over. Gunplay is another story.) And when you're on a mission with a deadline? God help you if you're crossing the street while Tommy Vercetti and his stolen Stinger (all your vehicles are necessarily and routinely carjacked) are going somewhere in a hurry. I find I'm trying to improve my driving skills less out of concern for the digital pedestrians than for the fact that my cars keep getting banged to pieces. It's a shame to scratch the paint on some of these vintage jobs, let alone shatter the windshield, tear off the doors, and drive around with the hood flapping in the wind. Anyway, all this means is that after watching the Oscars long enough to determine that they were going to be incredibly, criminally boring (even Emily, who was watching from New York with a gaggle of her wittiest friends, was bored), it was my pleasure to spend the rest of the evening robbing, killing, and committing an appalling number of moving violations.

If you're in the Ithaca area this evening, why not come out to the West End Reading Series at Juna's Cafe? Here's the scoop:
On MONDAY, February 28, 2005
6:00pm at Juna's Cafe on the Commons


Tim Fitzmaurice and Ilya Kaminsky


Tim Fitzmaurice has been writing for twelve years. Raised in the Saratoga region, and received his BA in English Literature from Saint Michael's College in Vermont. Fitzmaurice now lives in the Hudson Valley.

Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, former Soviet Union, and in 1993, his family received asylum from the American government and came to the United States. Ilya received his BA from Georgetown University and served as George Bennet Fellow Writer in Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy. He has won the Ruth LIlly Fellowship, and has received numerous other awards and prizes. Dancing in Odessa is his first full lenght book. In 2004, he graduated from law school and currently works as a Law Clerk for Bay Area Legal Aid in San Francisco.

If you do not wish to receive these announcements or if you need directions, please respond to this e-mail.

*The West End Reading Series is made possible in part by public funds from the Community Arts Partnership/NYS Council on the Arts Decentralization program and the support of the Constance Saltonstall
Foundation for the Arts.
I'm looking forward to meeting Ilya, whose book Dancing in Odessa has good buzz around it. As it happens, we'll both be reading at the New School on Wednesday and Thursday (him Thursday, me Wednesday). Should be an interesting time. I'm only sorry that I won't actually technically be sharing the stage with Dorothea Tanning—though there will be a group photo of the lot of us. I'll slip her my very last unspoken-for copy of Aubergine if I get the chance.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

So I finished the first draft of my first chapter. Hooray-a for me!, as Strong Bad would say. No idea if it's brilliant or stupid or how well it holds together—objectivity is out to lunch. It's just done, that's all. I've been totally exhausted and out of it since I finished yesterday afternoon, a little weepy even. A minor nervous breakdown. But I rested all day withh lots of TLC from Emily and I'm planning to rest all day tomorrow, too. Maybe go to the movies. Maybe read something entirely unrelated to work. Maybe read nothing at all. I need to get my groove back before the big reading on Wednesday. Should be fun.

If this were my computer instead of Emily's I'd post another old poem of mine. There's something kind of scary and liberating about putting the old stuff up: acknowledging the continuity of my imagination over time. Someday I might even cease to be embarrassed about that old chapbook of mine that I published ("printed" is more accurate) with the University of Montana back in 1998. Planets of a Cold Spring. Yikes.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The end of the chapter is so close I can taste it. Come on, big conclusion! Baby needs a new pair of shoes! While writing I'm listening to a CD I found used at Ithaca Books the other day, the Dilletti Pastorali of Johann Hermann Schein. Somehow it seems appropriate that the guy's last name would mean "appearing." Beautiful baroque choral music—a suitable soundtrack to what I'm writing. Other distractions: a new blog called The Great American Pinup with some refreshingly direct and thoughtful appraisals of poets as diverse as Mary Jo Bang and Adrienne Rich. And then there's this invitation from a new local outfit called the Ithaca Free School: anarchist education at its finest. I found the invitation letter inspiring and got permission from the School's founder to post it here:
My greetings to everyone.

I want to invite you all to join the email group for the Ithaca Free School. I hope
to generate more interest and participation in the School.

At present we have about ten regular or semi-regular participants. Our classes
mostly take the form of reading and discussion groups. There are no teachers,
although in some cases attendees with relevant knowledge may serve as facilitators.
All our classes are free and open to anyone with an interest in the subject matter.
Each class adapts its schedule to the needs of the participants and its pedagogical
procedure to the exigencies of the material. Classes are formed based on mutual
interest of at least two people. Therefore, if you have a friend, an interest, and
a time, whether one-time, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, we can declare it a Free
School class. The structure is intended to be as decentralized and
non-authoritarian as possible.

Our current subjects include Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Lucretius, Shakespeare,
Chaucer, Blake, the Bible, Heidegger and introductory Latin. Prospective classes
include German, the Cantos, American history from primary sources, the
Transcendentalists, and Dante. We have a weekly potlatch 7pm Thursday evenings at
the home of David Brazil and Crystal Koening. Our weblog
( updates daily with schedules, announcements, course
notes, and so forth.

At a time of political despair in our country, it is my belief that the individual
can best contribute not through alienated forms of protest politics but rather by
rethinking social practices and putting alternatives in place, here and now. Our
commitment to free education, to a non-institutional format, and to a common
interest in culture, is meant to question the usually unconsidered greed, ignorance,
selfishness, and obedience to power which governs our country, our cultural life,
and too often our own hearts. I hope that people who are committed to rethinking
education, and not only education, will contribute to this email group and
participate in the school.

For those of you out of town, I thought you might be interested in the goings-on. I
think this idea is one whose time has come (or come around again), and I hope it

Best wishes to all -- David Brazil
They have a blog you can check out here. Right. Enough procrastinating. Either this chapter goes down or I do.

Department of Full Disclosure

Reading Dan about his experiences trying to write a poem responsive to culture—specifically popular culture—in his workshops sent me back in time fifteen years (!) to my first undergraduate poetry workshop, where I got mostly disapproval from the professor for writing a sestina about the Coen brothers film Miller's Crossing. It wasn't a particularly good poem, but what really set off the prof's alarm bells was that it was about a movie. Anyway, I went digging through my old files to see if I could find the poem, and instead came across an interesting piece of juvenalia—a short attempt at an epic poem (if that's not a contradiction in terms) that I wrote my senior year in college. It's not a great poem, but it's not as bad as I'd expect, either. It doesn't engage pop culture as directly as the Miller's Crossing poem, but it does try to interfuse with the sense of something ending that a lot of us were feeling in 1991. Though my sense of history wasn't too acute then. It seems incredible that the events of those years, namely the fall of the Soviet Union, didn't affect me more directly. But on another level, my antennae were out. Though I think I wrote the whole thing to impress my girlfriend of the time. (Hi, Chris!) Anyway, here it is:
The Millenium Romance

For ten centuries we fought for a glimpse of stocking.
He wore doublet and hose and pretended to like scotch—
She was a fencer from the lowlands of New Jersey.
Muscles jumped in her thighs like flames over newspaper.

The old ways are monuments—the old days
Of men fighting for women. Now he stands amazed,
En passant, blood dripping from his hand.
They are like gypsy fish that drown on dry land.

She salutes him. Armed to the teeth, rouged,
She is the warrior of the hour. She touches him
On the throat with her nails, draws him down,
Breathes, Be a man.

The new glass buildings cast no shadows.
Weightless as Manhattan, spirits glide,
Whispering in the ear of every man,
Your day will come. The fear of men, everywhere.

Our bones, transparent, tough as glass.
Vibrant, neon-marrowed, animated.
In the face of disaster we bend with the wind.
We breathe water, wear sunblock. We are immortal.

At Lincoln Center the slow dancers of autumn
Step high over the hot coals of history,
Forgetting everything but old songs, calling
For someone to watch over them.

These days, the survivors of the sixties
Bundle guilt like kindling in their arms.
Their children fan the flames—they get jobs
If they can, marry. Otherwise, bleak apartments.

A man bearing a skull is the symbol of theater.
Our man carried his in a lunchbox.
Each of us drinks from the skulls of ancestors,
Swallowing hues of language, crushing the empties.

Sticks and stones can break my bones
But newspapers swell and rot in the gut.
Our hearts beat time to the doomsday clock
Our leaders have shut in a vault. We work alone.

A cop walks in the footprints of Los Angeles, saying
Nothing to see here. Graffiti runs like mascara.
Bullet holes like acne scars on proud, blind buildings.
He taught her to dance on the Hollywood Freeway.

Children are obsolete. It's in all the papers.
There's a plan to send the unborn to Antarctica—
They'd be happier there. The unspoiled world
Counts the days to millennium. Tag, cry some children, you're it.

She was taught to fear penetration but did not.
A woman knows every secret of blood.
Giver her a mask, rubber gloves, and she will carve an empire.
The flesh of men is eager.

God is a Jew. God is African. God
Has no face. God is a sunup. God
eats your pain. God lost his glasses. God
Is in our way. There is no God but God. God.

You can see the Great Wall from space.
Venus winks out like a naked eye.
They dance beneath the stars on a winter night.
Her breath turns to snow in her lover's beard.

They do not speak. Whirling like planets, he cradles
The small of her back, her lumbar soul.
She finds herself in his eyes and is afraid.
Blood and bone. Blood and bone.

He frowns like Abraham, she laughs like Sarah.
Almost unwilling, she pulls up near his ear.
I'll love you forever. It rises up from her womb,
Out her throat, past her lips and into him. I'll love you forever.

The city falters around them. Men with two first names
Listen for their mothers. Women with powerful arms
Cling tightly to their fathers. The animals are loose
In the cathedral. The crypt fills with walking bones.

Dance, America. Dance for your lost sons.
Dance for your virgin daughters. Jitterbug,
Foxtrot, waltz and waltz. Dance for the end
Of the war. Of the wedding. Of the millennium.

Where did the time go? It's still here.
Golf balls pause in flight. Neither on nor off is the light.
Geometry rattles its chain under the St. Louis arch.
Cigarettes and coffee are the flying buttresses of the soul.

They are kissing at last, tasting water and earth,
Swaying in the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Bach and Mozart, Mozart and Bach. Beautiful,
he whispers, and she reaches for her revolver.

City of immigrants, city of need.
A woman goes from hospital to hospital, crying Where?
The dead work the cracks like the beggars work corners,
Rattling the coins of their lives in a cup. Still here.

Easy words pulse in the swan of his throat.
Sing me a new song, she says. He croons,
You are my sunshine—your pain is mine—your children
Are my children
. She says, I've heard it.

I'd give up poetry for one wink from love.
Love's theocrat sings "Stand By Your Man",
Encores with "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Every messiah and prophet sings "Stand By Me".

Who needs love in St. Petersburg? In Montana?
Who needs anything but for winter to end.
Your kisses are mortal as mistletoe.
For how many years will you miss me? How many minutes?

Every ending hits the brick wall of joy.
We leave to our lovers what words remain.
They choose weapons and icons—they face off
Over the reservoir. Their eyes—time's rifle—unblinking.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Trying like hell to finish my monstrous "introduction" (fifty-two pages and counting) to the diss. so I can send it off to my committee for comments and praise and hopefully no criticism more substantial than, "Couldn't you use a more attractive font?" But I have been following the increasingly widespread blogscussion (what a hideous neologism! forget I said it) on innovation, valuation, and authenticity (aka the with/to/for discussion) that has occupied Gary, Jake, Cornell's own Kevin Elliott, Laurel, Mike (happy birthday, Mike!), Jonathan, Kasey, Ron, and Jordan (who has introduced an entire subset of discussion centered on "favela funk" and the ghettofication of the category of the authentic—see Simon Reynolds' blissblog for some interesting thoughts on that). I was struck by this sentence of Ron's: "Complexity around one’s own identity is, I think, the greatest predictor of what kind of poet one is likely to become, or at least sensitivity to that complexity." This cuts rather elegantly to the heart of things and speaks to the tremendous difficulty I've encountered in teaching Cornell students the mode of critical thinking which goes beyond skepticism toward assuming a more complex stance toward one's own identity. For a woman or person of color or sexual minority, this kind of thinking can only be empowering; for a privileged white male it means taking on the consciousness condescendingly described as "liberal guilt": the recognition that one's position is built on the backs of others and the need to take some form of responsibility for that. This points to the utter inextricability of a radical political position (I want to use "radical" here relative to our current historical context, in which even a middle-of-the-road pol like Howard Dean can be described as "out of the mainstream") from the kind of pedagogy I must practice on my students and on myself. Guilt isn't sufficient, of course, just as poetry isn't sufficient for a whole life. But the fostering of a larger sense of responsibility than the diminished one most young people have today (to who or what to we owe anything beyond our credit cards?) ought to be something even conservatives could agree with—the basic capacity for responsibility. Of course, their objects of mediation for that sense of responsibility—the nation-state, Christian doctrine, patriarchy—are objects I have serious and permanent objections to.

Lyric poetry that's intensely alive to more than one means of identity-production (economic, ethnic, gender-based, the unconscious, personal history, capital-H History, etc.) is generally going to be more interesting to me than a poetry that fixates on only one of those categories—poems with a more complex "later" to use Laurel's candy metaphor. One of my challenges as a poet right now is to tap some of the identity-production areas that I'm less comfortable with—which includes, perhaps surprisingly to some, personal history. Any of those categories can be reified or turned into myths—it's much harder to present the quick of one's experience, the actual encounter with or moment of self-production. As Roy Batty says, it's not an easy thing to meet your maker.

Monday, February 21, 2005

So Thompson killed himself on the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. And, a customer informed me just now, it also happens to be the birthday of W.H. Auden. What does this all mean? I don't know.

"we, the inconstant ones"

One Hundred Grand

I'm no numbers whore, but I am still pleased and amazed to report that this blog, which turned two years old last month, had its 100,000th hit sometime yesterday. Thanks to everyone for your interest and support.

Goodnight, Doctor

What a rotten piece of news to wake up to: "Hunter S. Thompson, 65, Author, Commits Suicide". Thompson meant something to me in many of his incarnations: the chief mourner for the squandered liberatory potential of the Sixties who is nevertheless funny as hell in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; the young self-consciously literary striver of the letters, which I read when I was myself only a striver with nothing whatever to show for himself; and not least the conniving and cynical Doonesbury character, Duke. I have to confess my first thoughts on seeing that headline were, "Somebody had him killed." Had the great Gonzo Journalist come from behind in his last days with some Administration-shaking piece of scandal? Wishful thinking, I'm sure: ill health, or depression, or money troubles, or perhaps his ever-growing sense of irrelevance are more likely candidates for what did the good doctor in. I'm sad that he's gone, racist gun-nut that he was: the man fearlessly spoke his (somewhat incoherent) truth to power, and we seem to have fewer and fewer such among us these days, at a time when we need them more than ever.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Another literally rending etymological excursion from Jasper Bernes: thanks, Jasper. Scarifying stuff, again literally: to read this is to read what we've written on others and therefore our selves, Penal Colony-style.

Also been thinking about two recent posts by Laurel on the subject of "the mainstream" and "accessibility"—two words which make me wince just because they're so often used as blunt instruments to cudgel those of us whose sense of Outward is tied more to our own instincts (instincts we can't help but claim universality for) than to an empirically determinable audience. In other words, we collapse Gertrude Stein's infamous remark, "I write for myself and for strangers" into "I write for myself and therefore for strangers"—including, maybe especially, the strangers we are to ourselves. But Laurel doesn't mean to use these terms as weapons. I think it's a mistake to describe "mainstream" verse as a style: for me it's more a mode of organization or means of production, one that is more or less in harmony with other modes of cultural production (movies, the music business, TV, etc.) For me, "mainstream" is less a question of style than who authorizes the writing: if it's anyone who isn't the author him- or herself (i.e., self-publishing), or a voluntaristic community of producers/consumers (a "school," "circle," group, etc.), then that's mainstream. According to that definition, I myself am very much a mainstream writer, since I submit work to journals, book contests, etc. It's only through this blog, through critical writing generally, and through my teaching work that I've made a serious attempt to seize the means of production and by so doing to actively create an audience for my own writing and the context I want that writing to appear in. The question of "sincere personal content" does not, for me, define where a poem sits on the mainstream-avant continuum. Much of the work of all five of my Grood Younger Poets is crammed to bursting with sincere personal content. What sets it apart from, say, the personal content in this Sharon Olds poem is the poet's attitude toward the personal and the context(s) he or she recognizes and creates for it. Olds' poem suffocates me with the intensity of her self-regard: this isn't because of its subject matter (the ill-fated meeting of the poet's parents), though that might seem egoistical enough, but the formal decisions she makes (a melodramatic use of anaphora, pile-ups of rather ordinary adjectives, etc.) and what I might call the poem's "high-conceptness." What if I could choose to warn my parents not to get married, not to beget me? The poem's basic premise is pure Hollywood; it's dripping with sentimentality. In spite of its sepia tones (don't you just love the photo someone's inserted at the top of the page?) it's a poem bereft of history, either in the macro sense (historical events) or in the logopoetic sense (the words' sense of their own history, which in this poem might have manifested as a consciousness of cliche). Now I do find some of Olds' poems to be interesting and effective because they manifest the presence of the (female, aging) body in ways that engage the larger social-historical world: they confront us with our discomfort about sexuality, mortality, and the feminine. But mostly I object to the way her high-concept "personal content" overwhelms language—which is where the news I go to get from poems resides—and the poem as a whole presents me with a slack transparency through which I see nothing but a slightly icky story. And a mere story presented without vigorous, compressed, memorable (and in the sense of history I mentioned above, "memoryable") language ain't a poem.

As for the question of accessibility, I rather like Laurel's two-layer model: "We can call them the physical and the cranial, or the sensual and the academic, or whatev." But I'm not clear as to which layer Laurel would assign the "story" of a poem to. There's nothing "sensual" about narrative as such: it's just the most easily accessible handle by which we grasp a piece of writing. Having once grasped it by that handle, however, it's damn hard to look at it from any other angle. For me the sensual or physical experience of a poem is in the words: their sound first, then the images they conjure, and then the network of references they call up: melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. (Though prior to any of this is the situation I encounter the poem in: is it in a small press book or chapbook, a magazine unfamiliar to me, somebody's blog, in a textbook, etc. I can't and don't see the point in attempting to "bracket" the situation a particular piece of writing is embedded in.) As far as my personal taste goes, I don't think it's much different from Laurel's: I am more attracted to and take more immediate pleasure in poetry with a sensual surface. It's true that I'm often fascinated by poetry that goes "straight for the head" but even this poetry has an outer layer surface, however scuffed or inadqueate, and if I don't see it I'm quicker to blame myself than the poem. A poem of pure surface is almost impossible to imagine: the underlayer may not be discernible in the words, but clues are available in the situation of encounter I just mentioned. Still, the poems that I love the most tend to offer me both a rich aural surface and a chewy intellectual center, which together have the power to make me care about the sincere personal content. It's the whole package, not any one of its elements, that moves me and makes the poem memorable.

A poet from Omaha, Nebraska named Steve Langan sent me a chapbook of his, Notes on Exile & Other Poems, that won the 2004 Weldon Kees Award of The Backwaters Press. It's kind of badly designed, physically (the title of each poem and the book's title is superimposed behind the text on every page) but I like the poems a lot: aphoristic, dream-like, with a gentle urgency and "humorous sadness." "Alternate Endings (to a Red and Gray Book)" is in there and here's the poem on the facing page, which is a magnificent re-inscription of religious anxiety:
After John Donne

God, reconsider.

Earth is an interruption
of the epic dream.

Planets drift and sway.

To a bear, a grizzly,
earth is a tomb.

Some say it is also a weapon
"or could be fashioned as such."

Hello, common beasts.

Welcome, spools of glass
twined to the gravel.


A present given to me
by an inspired night watchman.

This not inexpensive watch.

So eerie, he kept telling us
about the "disassembled sky."

Constellations white as weeping.

While staring, we stood listening
under the gray awning.
That "inspired night watchman" seems like a more benign version of the gatekeeper in Kafka's great parable Before the Law: the confrontation with that which stops us from seizing our own truth, our own weeping. That's sincere personal content that gives me enough room to discover it. I feel that not just my intelligence but my personal space is respected by such a poem. It doesn't need to grab me by the lapels to fix me with its glittering eye. Nice work, Steve.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Another day dissing, immersed in the versions of mimesis propounded by Benjamin and Adorno and trying to figure out how to bring the introduction (if 40+ pages can still be called an introduction) to a graceful close. Also re-read Benjamin's "The Author as Producer" and realized that his ideal is more or less mine, as I've described it: the utopia of a transformed relation between literary producers and consumers. I ought to read more Brecht. Need to connect the environmental imagination with the social somehow; should probably spend some more time with the Eclogues themselves. Almost all my thinking about pastoral has come from or at least corresponds with these lovely, odd little poems that somehow founded a genre that compels the Western imagination to this day. Or so I say.

I'd like to call your attention to a blog new to me, Rhubarb Is Susan. I like the title (from Stein) and I like the concept: microreviews of poems from journals. Actually, they don't seem all that micro. You have to click where it says "full review" to read the actual review. I like what he has to say about Laura Glenum's The Eggs of My Amnesia. I'm also glad to have had my attention called to this rather extraordinary document, Laura's Manifesto of the Anti-Real. An ethos of emergency—though I perhaps prefer Frank O'Hara's.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Freakishly warm yesterday, and sunny: T-shirt weather. This morning, cold rain turned into heavy snow turned back into rain. Who knows what to think any more. Spent the morning on the dissertation's intro, into which I am slowly folding practically everything I've ever thought the past four years. Here are some names: Virgil, Kant, Lukacs, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Heidegger, Levinas, Jameson, Bourdieu, Buck-Morss, Poggioli. Here are some concepts: authenticity/ownness/appropriateness, natural beauty, mimesis, late capitalism, modernism, postmodernism, the avant-garde, the middle landscape, the middle voice, chiasmus, aesthetic autonomy, habitus, aletheia, utopia, and pastoral. Still actual chapters to be written, though I have about a third of the first chapter on Pound. Toying with the idea of taking on Stevens for the second chapter. I need to make up my mind whether I want to center the diss. on some canonical modernists or progress through the twentieth century so I can talk about folks like Ronald Johnson.

This evening, I've finally taken the time to extract the long poem I started writing last summer, tentatively titled "Kiosk/Stylus," from its notebook. It comes out to sixteen pages in Word and will probably grow longer. The question of form for a long poem that is not serial plagues me: it could just go on and on like this, as The Cantos did and as projects like Rachel Blau du Plessis' Drafts seem to do. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just feels unfamiliar—no doubt a good sign. My poem might be subtitled "An Argument in 2004" (which riffs on the title of a Delmore Schwartz story, "An Argument in 1934"); it's an attempt to come to terms with the world as I saw it from New York three years after 9/11, an attempt not to succumb to Claudia Rankine's IMH syndrome (IMH: The Inability to Maintain Hope). Since it's 2005 I should probably just declare the damn thing finished and call it a chapbook. I posted a fragment from it back in September; here's another chunk:
Sunday and sun. Brooks of light, the avenues
flooded. A few students, Dominicans, lean Africans,
a woman with a German shepherd. Perfecting breeze
to sweep lamination from our image of blue.
Fossilized apartment blocks’ blank gaze.
Decisions unheard from the street sweep the boulevard
sheltering animal hopes of a center. But no home
to face your fortune. Attempt lengthens but or as
as things to be believed. A smoking refinery
squats on the skyline—out of earnest talks.
Characters bleed in the rain or shield a face
for sleep. Stones to walk on, stupefying sun
makes it new, the scene. Where are people
joined to a voice? The wounded island funnel
through which we hardly dare to speak.

             Yet it’s most personal, earth.

And whim is part of the process,
        rain is part of the process.
        Each teaches the exterior.
        The cloacal world unleveraged, unheld
        but for the soapslip between each word.
        Washed mouth. On upper Broadway,
        faced hollows. Cadavers by chance and choice
        pass by, tightening. I am, as passenger, alone.

And at 91st and West End,
seven stories of a twelve-story building
wrapped in ivy facing the sun.
Multitudinous shadows surface there,
fronding windows, shades drawn—
a life encompassing

                          So so long the city
                          that mirths music out
                          of unaccustomed silence
                          and rigors of autumnal light

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Geography Meme

A much better title for a poem than for what I'm actually about to do (via Laura and Gary and others):
Bold the states you've been to, underline the states you've lived in and italicize the state you're in now...

Alabama/ Alaska / Arizona / Arkansas / California / Colorado / Connecticut / Delaware / Florida / Georgia / Hawaii / Idaho / Illinois / Indiana / Iowa / Kansas / Kentucky / Louisiana / Maine / Maryland / Massachusetts / Michigan / Minnesota / Mississippi / Missouri / Montana / Nebraska / Nevada / New Hampshire New Jersey / New Mexico / New York / North Carolina / North Dakota / Ohio / Oklahoma / Oregon / Pennsylvania / Rhode Island / South Carolina / South Dakota / Tennessee / Texas / Utah / Vermont / Virginia / Washington / West Virginia / Wisconsin / Wyoming / Washington D.C.
Not sure this proves anything beyond the fact that I've done a fair bit of cross-country driving. If you could only boldface states you'd actually slept in a couple of these would go Roman. (There's another poem title for you.)

Monday, February 14, 2005

The first lines of the first poem in Claudia Rankine's second book, The End of the Alphabet are "Difficult to pinpoint // fear of self, uncoiled." Those lines are the cornerstone or master key to her intensely moral poetry, which constantly confronts the fear of the experience of selfhood both in individuals and in larger entities—corporations, the media, the military—that have a stake in diminishing the true value of our lives. The End of the Alphabet was probably the first really "difficult" book of poetry I encountered while an MFA student at the University of Montana; I can't exactly remember, but I was probably introduced to the book by my teacher Mary Jo Bang, whom Rankine thanks on the copyright page. Immersed as I was at the time in epiphanic lyric and poems full of tough-guy evocations of mountains and bars, I didn't really know what to make of Rankine's abstract-seeming, titleless poems (among other things, it was one of my first encounters with the serial form). What to make of the first poem of "Testimonial":

As if I craved error, as if love were ahistorical,
I came to live in a country not at first my own
and here came to love a man not stopped by reticence.

And because it seemed right
love of this man would look like freedom,

the lone expanse of his back
would be found land, I turned,

as a brown field turns, suddenly grown green,
for this was the marriage waited for: the man
desiring as I, movement toward mindful and yet.

It was June, brilliant. The sun higher than God.
Now this looks like a straightforward and lovely piece of epithalamion, but at the time it was hard for me to appreciate such rhetorically understated writing. (This also prevented me from appreciating another poet who combines erotico-religious intensity with understatement that I first encountered at about the same time—Donald Revell.) Other sources of relief exterior to language as such, like humor, are similarly missing, to the point that some friends and I used to make fun of the intense seriousness and sobriety in Rankine's third book, Plot, intoning made-up lines like, "Ersatz, the baby's femur / separated in dread!" But there's more to Rankine than sobriety: Plot is a kind of Gothic romance of the self in the course of transformation through the "plot" of nine-months pregnancy. Even more than Alphabet it's a tour-de-force of American écriture feminine: the story of a woman coming to recognize the other that she is and contains, for her husband, for society, and for herself. It also represents the move toward prose poetry, or a combination of the two, that culminates in the book that's truly moved me to nominate Rankine for Groodness, the astonishing and heartbreaking Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, which Jordan praised back in January. This book deserves much more attention than its gotten. It's tempting to classify it as a sort of high journalism or editorial, akin in its critical spirit (which also contains actual news and actual truth about current events) to Jasper's marvelous Etymological Excursion. Or you might call it a "lyric essay," the form described/defined by John D'Agata and the Seneca Review. The book includes photographs, Barthesian readings of films like The Wild Bunch and media events like Princess Di's funeral, as well as "hard news" (it's difficult to draw a line here) like the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 attacks and the pickup-truck lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. This stuff is hard to quote but you can read the section referring to the latter here. Narrative is a much more overt presence in these pages than it is in Rankine's previous books (I should note here that I haven't read her first book, Nothing In Nature Is Private) as is Rankine's overt prose self, a black woman turning forty confronting private and public tragedies in a culture that denies the real meaning of the tragic. The first sentence here is, "There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died." That's American amnesia in a nutshell: we never remember death in this country, not those of our soldiers or those of the poor or those of communities who've lost their economic reason for being, or those of the nameless, faceless Iraqis whose deaths we've supposedly redeemed by the gift of democracy. And we certainly don't remember our own deaths—for Rankine, this forgetting is the source or nexus of our loneliness:
Or, well, I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. The world moves through words as if the bodies the words reflect did not exist. The world, like a giant liver, receives everyone and everything, including these words: Is he dead? Is she dead? The words remain an inscription on the surface of my loneliness. This loneliness stems from a feeling of uselessness. Then Coetzee's Costello says in her fictional lecture, "for instants at a time I know what it is like to be a corpse."
Heavy, yes, but useful in the sense she wants it to be—in assuaging loneliness, hers and hours. The paragraph on the following page is also worth quoting in full: it refracts O'Hara's Personism through the intense historical urgency that Paul Celan's writing always invokes and demands:
Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem—is how Rosemary [sic] Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that—Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.
Rankine's assertion of presence and hereness through the "touch" of the poem versus the bodilessness of words in the world's movement seems very un-Languagey and anti-postmodernist until you realize that what she's powerfully making a claim for is the imagination necessary to make the bodies (and particularly the faces) behind words real, and that it's the deficit of such imagination that we as Americans suffer from and force others to suffer through, in spite/because of being the world's number one exporter of imaginative imagery. Imagining the other, putting yourself in contact with them: that's the embodiment of/in language that I'm calling with Stevens Change. And the urgency of that change is felt through the power of the Abstract that poetry must be in order to present us with reality in apprehendable pieces. The Pleasure? No more or less than the touch of the poet's hand, something to grasp in the dark.

Those are my Five Grood Poets. There are many others, but I'm going to pull back from enumerating their virtues here for a while, at least in any programmatic way. I hope I've done these writers some good by pointing them toward new readers, and I hope I've done something to make my own values as a poet a little clearer. Avanti and out.

as she says on the following page, quoting Paul Celan in Rosmarie Waldrop's translation, "I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem." This is O'Hara's Personism in more dire circumstances, when friendship
A poem from correspondent Karl Parker dedicated to yours truly and my little dog, too:
Romantic Movement

I have to wait ‘til the goddamned trees speak to me
before I can go on, you know, proceed.

Giddy to go by, I ride and ride and ride and ride
until the sun or something of the sort takes me down.

Do la-la, I do la-la by the brook. Fusky stuff.
Ripples in puddles, or nerves across a surface, slow.

We go down to soon go by. We go by and by.
Weeds wreck an angle I am taking to arrive

somewhere close to here, transformed, among friends.
Another self, another time of day, another sound.
Grood Poet No. 5, and the last I'll discuss in such terms, is Claudia Rankine. Commentary to follow.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Noli illegitimi carborundum

Welcome back, Laura. I haven't followed the Foetry business for months and I don't intend to start again now. But it made me sad and angry to think that they were driving good, creative people from the scene. I'm glad they haven't succeeded. Instead of saying any more about the subject, I refer you to the thoughts of Chris Murray and the cartoons of Jim Berhle.

We at Soon had a fabulous weekend hosting Jennifer Michael Hecht, her clever husband John, and their sweet baby Max. Jennifer and partner-in-poetry Theo Hummer gave a kickass reading at the State of the Art Gallery Saturday night. Jennifer's a funny and committed reader, Brooklyn all the way—watch out for her new book, Funny, which entertainingly deconstructs some very old jokes. (A sample: Man says to woman, "Tell me, am I your first lover?" She replies, "Could be—your face looks familiar.") You can read some poems from her first book here—she read "History" last night and it was very moving. As for Theo, she regaled us with poems from a series she calls "Tales of the Naked Wandering Dead Lady"—gothic, funny stuff—and pulled off what is becoming one of her trademarks, a long poem many of whose sections were read by members of the audience. Aside from the basic value of putting the poem in front of the reader, which I think makes a reading feel friendlier (that's also one reason why we—well, Aaron—do broadsides for all of our authors), it's a delicious and slightly spooky aural effect to not know where the next piece of a poem is going to come from. The audience (a record turn-out—we'll put photos on the Soon site soon) went home happy. This morning, Emily and I had everyone over for brunch, where we played an excellent game John introduced called, I think, One Two Three. Two people count to three and each say a word; for example, this morning it was "flower" and "nectarine." Then two more people each say a word that they think somehow combines those two (we got "hybrid" and "sex"). The game continues until two people each say the same word. Simple, brilliant, loads of fun. I recommend it for your next poets' brunch.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Very pleased to find that there is now an Amazon page for Fourier Series. In case you were wondering, my esteemed and excellent publisher is in final negotiations with the printer (I believe the same folks who print Dalkey Archive's books) and he has a brilliant new idea for the cover design (let's just say the book is going to be very collectable). It's going to be very beautiful and distinctive. I feel excited and lucky.
I am disturbed by the conviction of Lynne Stewart on terror charges. I am horrified and disgusted by this article in The New Yorker about the semi-secret policy of the U.S. government known as "extraordinary rendition." And on a much lower key, I am disturbed by the mass exodus of many of my favorite bloggers from blogland: Tony Tost, Aaron Tieger, Aaron McCollough, and Laura Carter chiefly among them. I can understand stopping to pursue other priorities as the men on that list have done, but what happened to Laura? No goodbye note, no nothing—l'ecritures bleues are simply gone.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, who is staying with her husband and baby just one floor above us in Theo's apartment, gave a fascinating talk yesterday on the nineteenth-century French anthropologists of "the Society of Mutual Autopsy" that carried on anticlerical atheist activities with what can only be called religious fervor. Check out her book on the subject, The End of the Soul, and, while you're at it, her sweeping history of Doubt. We had a delightful dinner—well, after-dinner—with Jennifer and her brood at Karen and Jerry's house: they are charming and delightful, man, woman, and baby. We discussed: the bedtime habits of freelance writers, hope for the American left (short version: we need clubs and places of association to match the right's principal places of association, namely churches) and community-building generally, the benefits and hazards of combining or separating one's academic interests from one's poetry, variations on the crossword puzzle (her husband John writes puzzle books), Strong Bad E-mail, and the baby's unusual size (he's nine months old and looks eighteen. Months old). Tonight she and Theo will be reading at the State of the Art Gallery here in Ithaca and I certainly hope to see you there.

Friday, February 11, 2005

It's too astoundingly sunny and beautiful here to blog long. Plus I've got to get up the hill for Jennifer Michael Hecht's talk (see below). But I'd like to refer all and sundry to the amazing poem-essay or etymology that Jasper Bernes is conducting today. I wish the NY Times editorial page read like this.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Here at the Bookery I took down a magazine new to me called Contemporary. There's a terrific conversation there between designer Bruce Mau and everyone's favorite Talking Head, David Byrne. I particularly liked Mau's response to Byrne's question about who the audience for his work was:
BM: I think, rightly or wrongly, in terms of a very broad audience, young and old, near and far, hip and square, art and science, students and practitioners. And at the same time, I imagine that audience as a single individual. Someone who is generous and open, willing to be challenged and surprised, interested in difficult formulations and not afraid. One thing I learned from my collaborators at Zone Books was that when you assume intelligence on the receiving end of your work, you add dignity to the world.

DB: A beautiful phrase, that.

BM: Probably the most damaging and demoralising effect of the field of visual communications is the degree to which we fail to do this, we fail to begin with the assumption that the consumer is a citizen first, that they have the capacity to deal with reality in all its complexities. If you think about it, most people during their lifetime have the responsibility of raising children, a challenge infinitely more complex than anything else we ask of them. As a culture we often set the bar too low.
I would submit that you could substitue "poetry" for "the field of visual communications" and still retain most of the truth value of Mau's statement. He well articulates what I try to live by.

Two or three announcements:

- Soon Productions is proud to present poets Jennifer Michael Hecht and Theo Hummer this Saturday at the State of the Art Gallery at 120 W. State Street, Ithaca, New York, this Saturday February 12 at 7 PM. Come one, come all.

- Ms. Hecht will be giving a talk in her capacity as cultural historian Friday, February 11 in the Cornell English Department Lounge, 258 Goldwin Smith Hall, at 1:30 PM. Her talk is titled "Science Against Religion: The Society of Mutual Autopsy and Other Tales from the Lab," and it's a discussion of some nineteenth-century French atheist anthropologists dedicated to proving the non-existence of the soul. Should be bracing and a little gory.

- For those of you who will be in New York City this weekend, my frighteningly talented friend Karl Parker will be reading his poetry at Solas on 9th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues at 8 PM on Sunday, February 13. Karl was featured at the No Tell Motel last year and he's also got a sad n' spooky poem up at a German e-journal, gedanken-strich (click on "moist dot"). Check it out.

It's been suggested to me that I might want to turn my attention to Grood Magazines when I'm done with Grood Poets. I just might do that.

Following the conversation between Gary and Jake with great interest. The question of writing with/to/for provokes a lot of thought. I am most comfortable writing with as my quixotic wish (which Jake has very reasonable doubts about) to turn readers into writers reflects. Writing to seems endemic to actually bothering to get yourself published—I feel here is where we engage the question of the economy of recognition that has the folks at Foetry so exercised. You write to someone, after all, in hopes of being answered. As for writing for, I have trouble recognizing a constiuency for myself—"my people—in the manner Jake describes himself feeling obligated to address the people in the southern town where he grew up. My sense of community is much less geographical, largely because I grew up in the anonymous-seeming North Jersey suburbs. Also, I can never not remember feeling alienated from the community as represented by my public-school peers: the rejection I experienced there has left me seeking affiliation with other rejects ever after, which perhaps explains my ambivalence about the "mainstream" invoked by the concept of the Common Reader, who has never felt the need to interrogate the structures of an existence they feel more or less in harmony with and so can be presumed to be blissfully ignorant of "theory," etc. I may envy these "Readers" (who almost certainly do not correspond to any actual breathing human beings) or despise them, but to write for them? What would that mean but abjection—an act of "submission" far more humiliating than the more personal address made when you ask a given editor (and the readership he or she represents) to recognize you and your contribution? At least in that situation you have already potentially elected yourself to a given company of writers/readers—that is, you feel the book, press, or magazine speaks to you. That's why submitting your work to someone who doesn't already in some sense speak to you is a recipe for humiliation, no doubt intensified by the enclosure of twenty-five hard earned bucks.

Right, I've stalled long enough. Grood Poet No. 4 is Elizabeth Willis, whose most recent book, Turneresque, was haunting the side pocket of my book bag for the better part of last year. On my DC trip I acquired two of her earlier works, Second Law (signed, no less), and her 1994 National Poetry Series winner, The Human Abstract. Reading those books, it's clear to me that Willis has more direct ties to Language poetry than the other Grood Poets I've selected thus far: the writing is often gnomic, sprinkled with typograhical oddities, with suggestive individual lines that seem like broken-off puzzle pieces arranged according to some undiscoverable rule. Both Second Law and a large chunk of The Human Abstract have a hermetic quality in the magical sense that I associate with the likes of H.D. and Robert Duncan: they engage with mystical texts that provide another doorway into the poetry if you are initiated into those texts. Which I'm not, particularly (Second Law invokes Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress while a section of The Human Abstract titled "Jordan (H-YRDN)" dabbles in H.D.-ish Egyptiana). I find this kind of thing interesting and even enjoyable as my mind skates over surfaces whose depths I do not doubt, even though (because?) they're inaccessible—but groodness as I'm defining it requires a degree of intensity that such skating rarely provides. That's why I'm drawn to the more lyric poems in Abstract, like this section from the first poem, "A Maiden":
Lovely hero where the lovely hero bounds

an acre hidden between eros and its errors

Finding a dozen darts beneath the skin of

Watching the wire of a skinny flame

No other lovely hero found the back

behind her secret form of symmetry

Her gleaming difference

Her schoolish way in pretty understandings

Said not done Not said Undone

Wealthy sadness has a way of winning everyone

This is the end of my body as you know it

its superfluous penchant for love

its poorer costume, its shiny disaster
This is smart, shimmery, erotic writing, with a degree of the incisive, oblique wit ("Wealthy sadness has a way of winning everyone") that is the dominant note of Turneresque. I love the title, which could be a description of lyric poetry as that which "turns" (as in the volta of a sonnet) and also invokes in queasy simultaneity the "painter of light" Joseph Mallord William Turner and billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, infamous colorizer of black-and-white films. It gets another "spin" from the Rimbaud quotation that substitutes for a blurb on the back cover: "The world marches on! Why shouldn't it turn around?" There's tremendous pathos to this in our current political context (subtly evoked in the book, most obviously in the section titled "Elegy") but there's also a mischievousness. a desire to substitute dancing for marching. (Incidentally, I was quite struck by Bill Knott's attack on music in this interview—it reminds me of accounts of how soldiers in Iraq blasted heavy metal music in their heavy metal tanks, the better to turn the whole thing into a video game.) Many if not most of the poems in Turneresque are prose poems, and they are what first enchanted me into reading the book over and over. Not quite parsable without every being merely surreal, the most fun ones are forms of ekphrasis—as in the "Turneresque" section, where each poem is named for a film in Ted Turner's vast library.
Don't Bother to Knock

Nel's off thhe farm, watched over by a dutch uncle. She writes herself in semaphor and scars. Her story's on a timid fuse of torment like the girl behind the wall. Pilots are never what they appear, flying over Oregon. Even when they tiptoe she hears the watery crash of slamming doors. She meets a creep half made of memory, but his girl's already got him with a sultry lasso. Nel's looking for an ally. But when the house dick comes to, she's already walking the arena into old rooms. It's a wrap.
I love the hard-boiled diction that includes both the world of the film and the world of film ("It's a wrap"), and the sense the poem gives me of unfolding meanings—the stray lyricism glimpsed between the shocks in a B movie. There's just enough of the film's original narrative (at least I think there is; I've never seen Don't Bother to Knock) to string us along—in a good way—through the slippages between sentences. What's consistent is the mood or stance of the poem, the sense of world it conjures, and for me that's one of the greatest pleasures of contemporary poetry: the opportunity to slip into a richly imagined world or world-moment without having to contend with the overdetermining presence of plot or character. It's like one of Browning's monologues without the distracting rhetorical surface—the palpable labor that goes into the rendering of a personality—as fun as that can be on its own terms. ("Zooks!") The last poem in the section considers not a movie, but the romantic comedy of our lives that was abruptly ended by the cinematic spectacle of September 11, 2001:
September 9

It's turneresque in twilight. The word comes at me with its headlights on, so it's revelation and not death. I figure I'm halway home though I've only started. Nothing is moving but me; I'm a blackbird. The neighbor's in labor, but so am I, pushing against the road. Physics tells us nothing is lost, but I've been copping time from death and can't relent for every job the stars drop on my back.
Many of us remarked on the quality of the light on the day of the disaster; what a flawless early autumn day it was. The poem itself records a simple drive home, the memory refracted through awful knowledge after the fact. It's the word that has headlights, that brings the unseen and unspeakable into appearance, that reveals what would otherwise die into forgetfulness, taking that moment of your life with it. Here the letter giveth life. It's that kind of nourishment that has me returning to this book and will keep me eagerly on the lookout for her next one. Her poetry makes the connection between Abstraction and Pleasure very clear: she presents what we would otherwise miss, and how glad we are for the uncolorized light she casts on the very moment of appearing. The quality of Change—the flicker between the sense of language and the sensation of language—is much more discrete (and discreet) in Turneresque than it is in the other books, where I would say it takes priority, and I'm just as glad. That is, it tends to create space between poems or sections of poems more than it does between lines or syntactical units. The quality of Change generates the poems' mystery—their almost successful resistance to the intellect—without I think manifesting as difficulty or hardness. So I would be quick to give this book to someone who was ready to break away from epiphanic verse but might be overwhelmed by a poetry of difficult syntax or word-fragmentation. I'd also be quick to so give the recent work of Grood Poet No. 5, the last I'll talk about, a little later in the week.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

I am going to proceed with Grood poetry as soon as I've caught all my breath. Spent the weekend in the DC area with Emily's family which was nice but stressful. Did get to spend some time with my old friend Chris and also went to Bridge Street Books in Georgetown for the first time, where I found one of the finest poetry selections I've ever seen (rivaled only by Cody's in Berkeley and St. Mark's Bookshop in New York). Anyway, I'm still getting back into the groove of life in Ithaca. In the meantime, I recommend that y'all read this lucid and eloquent post on the poetry market by Mr. Gary Norris.

Monday, February 07, 2005

David, I'm gonna make you a provisional map of the poetry universe that you can't refuse.

The key word being provisional. As in jury-rigged, temporary, for use keeping upright in heavy seas. Mama, please don't let your babies grow up to be reified.

Mike writes to clarify that he's got nothing against close readings of the Pisan Cantos or even against academic work as such—just that he thinks academic work is bad work for poets, "because it focuses so much energy away from the world that poets ought to
share with their readers (both in their lives and in their poems)." (Hope you don't mind being quoted there, Mike.) Well, I'd have to agree it's bad for some poets, or at least bad for their colleagues and students: the presence of poets in academia with no interest in teaching or intellectual life is indeed a serious problem, though partly a generational one. Certainly not all poets are or even should be intellectuals, though I admit a strong bias toward intellectually engaging poetry (aka wit). But I'm not sure the estrangement between what passes for American intellectual culture (which is a sad and diminished thing compared with the intellectual culture of countries like France or Argentina) and that slippery and disputable entity "the common reader" can or should be overcome by poets descending en masse from the academy and into the streets, especially since "the streets" barely exist any more in any meaningful sense in our suburban society. Insofar as I deplore the general trend of consumer culture and imperial paranoia in the so-called mainstream, I would be very slow to sacrifice the difference between that mainstream and the ever-shrinking margin that remains for independent thought—even and especially if that difference is founded on ideas the mainstream has smugly proclaimed to be "objectively" discredited.

Mike can advance his arguments against what I can't help of but think of as the more interesting approaches to writing and thought, and I'll be there to argue back. But at the end of the day we're not going to get past the fact that the poetry he endorses bores me silly, and the poetry I endorse offends his notion of putting the (preconceived, pre-imagined) reader first. It might be more interesting to see if we can discover any common ground.

Mike Snider is such a decent, intelligent guy that I'm constantly surprised by how catastrophically wrong I think his judgments are. It's difficult to tell from his latest attack whether he's more interested in slamming literary and critical theory as such or its (bad!) influence on poetry. He writes that "Most contemporary theory begins with the completely noncontroversial observation that there are large parts of the world we cannot experience at all, and that what we do experience is manipulated and filtered in various ways by our bodies, previous experience, and language." But the whole point of critical, theoretical thinking is to make this observation controversial, because as soon as you bring it to bear on actual trends, institutions, periods, and structures you start discovering more than meets the eye—a "more" that these structures have a stake in concealing. I'm not particularly interested in defending "French theory" as such, except insofar as the texts of Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, et al often do the same work as poetry for me: they estrange the familiar and help me to see it anew, without in any way really "destroying" the familiar (this, the greatest threat conservatives see in postmodern theory, is actually its greatest weakness). And the means of this defamiliarization is language. The difficulty of this language is partly just that (and I will admit it often verges on self-parody, particularly in its American versions) and partly the difficulty of wrenching your mind out of its usual "common sense" track for a while. Theory and poetry are both great cultivators of negative capability, which I happen to believe is one of the most valuable human faculties and which couples courage and humility with the imagination—a combination in sadly sort supply these days. Theoretical constructs like Freud's unconscious, Derrida's differance, Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomes, etc., may not be accurate in any scientific sense—that is, unlike the laws of physics, they can not and should not pretend to transhistorical value (I realize that this distinction is often ignored). But they are modes of truth in Heidegger's sense of aletheia or revealing. There may not be a literal "unconscious," but Freud's idea succeeded in defamiliarizing processes of the mind and libido for his time in such a way as to render them freshly visible to us. The truth-content of Freud's theory may have faded with the passage of time and the movements of history (though I don't think so, not quite yet), but that just means that new theories are called for if our thinking is not to become impoverished. I don't think cognitive science, as fascinating as it is, is anywhere near ready to replace Freud as a way to understand the intersection of consciousness and lived experience in a way that gives us more of ourselves than common sense is able to access.

I am much more willing to defend critical theory in its Frankfurt School manifestations on its own terms as something which does give us powerful tools with which to discover truths about social, political, and economic formations and institutions. (For example, I think Frederic Jameson's concept of "the postmodern condition" holds more water than Lyotard's.) But we were talking about poetry, right? I don't understand why the teaching of theory, to my mind an invaluable tool for teaching critical thinking and negative capability (they are similar but not identical), should negatively impact the teaching of poetry. It may do so in English departments that don't require their students to study actual literature, but if that actually happens it probably has more to do with petty politics than with any intrinsic contradiction between the two areas of study. Of course poets and PhDs and English majors should bloody well read "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (I'm not so sure about Maya Angelou), and Milton, and Marianne Moore, and all the other poets that there is still, in spite of everything, a critical consensus about when it comes to their value. But that's no argument against theory, only an argument for the allocation of resources. When it comes to hardcore theory, my own experience sort of confirms the Jewish prohibition of Kabbalah study to all but mature men (minus the sexism, of course): I managed to graduate from Vassar College with honors in English without reading word one of theory and only encountered the stuff in graduate school. So I already had a solid grounding in the ol' Western Canon by the time my eyes were opened to the pleasures and difficulties of counterintuitive thought. If I were running an English department, I'd probably forbid theory courses to freshmen and sophomores and require them to soak up actual literature instead. On the other hand, I'd certainly require at least an "Intro to Theory" course before they graduated, and literary theory would be one of the subject areas you could do a senior thesis in if you wanted.

The last part of Mike's post is an attack on the "cushy" academic lifestyle and resorts to good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism that hardly seems worth commenting on, even as it's the part of his post that makes me feel the most personally threatened and intimidated. "Who needs another close reading of the Pisan Cantos?" Who needs another Wal-Mart or redesigned atomic weapons? Who needs another episode of Desperate Housewives or another Dan Brown novel? Who, in short, needs more of the same, in poetry or anything else? There are bad and meretricious poems in the post-avant fold, which is large enough to contain multitudes. But at least they're trying to extend their consciousnesses and the consciousnesses of their readers beyond the confirmation of the status quo that is found in 99.99999% of American cultural production. And beyond all of this is the fact, the simple bedrock fact, that there is a passionate readership for this stuff. I may not have persuaded Mike to take pleasure in my Grood Poets, but I hope at least I've persuaded him that I take pleasure in them.

Since I continue to believe that pleasure is its own best defense, I'll be getting to Grood Poet No. 4 shortly. But right now it's time to shelve some books.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Unfortunately, I don't have time today to do Grood Poet No. 4 justice, so I'm going to postpone her for a while. Emily and I are off to the DC area this afternoon to visit her family, and we'll be there all weekend. I'm bringing the laptop to try and do some dissertating while I'm there (I'm up to my great Heidegger-Adorno synthesis/kerfuffle in the Introduction) and if I get some internet access I'll talk groodness. Otherwise, I'll see you all when I get back.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

If you do a Google search for the curious word "meticules," you will get a curious and vaguely anti-Semitic-sounding constellation of misspellings of "meticulous"—here are some of the pages that come up:
Baseball Stamp Story - Mozambique
MOZAMBIQUE Last update: february 28, 2002 JOGOS OLIMPICOS DE SEUL February 10,
1988 20 Meticules Yv: 1078 Mi: 1114 Sc: 1036 SG: 1177 Back.

RPG World
... One was as meticules as Frater and the other on was as creative Artemis. So
they are there you just have to find them. Kinda like anime! ...

Re: How did the Holocaust story originate?
... A little basic reading will probuce tons of evidence, the Germans were actually
quite proud of their efforts and kept meticules records for the camps and ...

Reminiscences By Aaron L. Lanning 1845-1934
... Before we were to leave for camp the Brighton girls made up a lot of little meticules
containing needles, thread, buttons, and pins which they called housewives ...

MysticWicks Online Pagan Community and Pagan Forums - Input please ...
... executed. BELIEVE ME, the Jews were meticules record keepers when it comes
to the Jerusalem, their kings and Religion. Nothing more. ... Militaria Forums - Opinions on EK2 Envelope
... With the exception of the swaz, this is one of the more detailed crosses I have.
The beading is meticules and check out this date. Any opinions are welcome. ...
You will also find some poems by Sheila Murphy and this 42-word review of Lisa Jarnot's book Some Other Kind of Mission from "Erika" at Horse Less Press:
Some Other Kind of Mission by Lisa Jarnot Recurring names. Other pieces are in blocks. Her hand on the visuals. Doesn't close? Constellations. Palimpsest enacted, recurring. Recurring names. Other pieces. And more chaotic. Definitive version of text's methods. Arranged. Deny "stop". "To stop" as verb (not verb/noun). And "meticules".
All of which is as good an introduction as any to the ex-centric and unsettling world of Grood Poet No. 3, the hat-making, London-swinging, horse-betting, Robert Duncan-biographying, repeating-with-a-difference Lisa Jarnot. Check out this illuminating interview with her where she cops to her first influences being "Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman." The complexity, the wit, the sheer strangeness of her output would be enough to get me to reconsider the value of the Beats, if I weren't sort of doing it already (I've been grooving to a CD some kind person gave me of Kerouac reading (and singing! who knew?) pieces of On the Road). Dylan plus Stein describes Some Other Kind of Mission pretty well—I would say Stein's influence has been the most constant on her style, while her finely honed sense of indignation comes more from the Dylan side (though she does not come across as a particularly ironic poet). To locate her in the Grood Group I'm assembling, I'd say repetition is the rhetorical trope that her obsessions are most tightly wound around (as the permutations of syntax are for Moxley and fragmentary collage is for Davies). I read her as a Change-Pleasure-Abstraction poet, since she's constantly flickering the electric field around individual words by repeating them; after that I notice/enjoy her stance toward the world; and immediately after that I'm conscious of what she presents to us (a lot of animals, for one). Her prose poems layer bits of narrative paratactically against each other, like sedimentary layers or younger ice accumulating atop older ice in the arctic. Language hallucinates itself in this passage that for me has interesting resonances with Stevens' "project of the sun":
Against the sun. a dream of source against the sun. willed against untitled. it is only a dream of the lawn. blowing against the source of the sun. due east. a dream against the source of the sun in the dream due east. count meticules. find. find visible. find dream of the sun it is only. in going to the median. meridian source the sun goes means. meridian dreams of means. find. find visible. find means. find dream due east. find means of. in find the means go east the median source of dream support in east due means supports the sun in find in visible in in click. in dreams of. it is only. going. in the. in find. after. of. is. only. going. in the. due east. of of of.
A slippery quest for origins, for the originary, that simultaneously puts its own ambition in jeopardy? I love that "it is only a dream of the lawn." Pastoral, not incidentally, is an interest of Jarnot's, and I think she derives her take on it from Duncan (who she is hardly over-reverent toward; the "sun" prose piece above is from a section of Mission titled, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Salad Bar," a sardonic remark perhaps on the dissociation between poetic means and ends that characterizes the post-Language scene). Nothing I've said so far touches on the sheer aural delight she's capable of producing as in this poem from her most recent book, Black Dog Songs:
Elmslie Blake Pastoral

In the meadow cows are leaping
through the branches monkeys sleeping
on the fields the sheepies bleating,
dancing on the vert fields creeping,

leaping, creeping verdant reaping,
all around their hooves repeating
what the bright green bushes say
opening the vert gren day

daylight, sheeplight their bright rays
chasing cows the monkeys play
dancing through the clear green hay
having hooves to leap they stray

into fields green cleared away,
how the monkeys verdant sway
sway on monkeys, sing and leap with
verdant sheep who mow the green tips

of the vert and verdant green
bright green, clear green, sheep-filled scene.
I'd read that poem to my kids, if I had any. The naivety of Jarnot's persona performs I think the same function as Ashbery's infamous elusivity, creating a space of imaginative freedom in which the writer can take risks: in Jarnot's case the risk of seeming silly, shallow, of having the reader totally miss the wordly context of words that can seem so barely themselves:
Land and Sea

Idle land in Israel
and snails are in a sea,

a real deal in a diner sails
as salads in a sea,

asides aside, aside asides
in salads in a sea,

aside in rinds in lines in lines
as diners in a sea,

a din in dine is in a deal
ideal as red a sea,

as in in dins asides aside,
and and and land and sea.
This is one of my favorite books of the past five years. Tomorrow I'll talk about a poet who became one of my Five Groods on the basis of the single book of hers that I read and then proceeded to carry around with me for the better part of a year.

And no, I still don't know what "meticules" means.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Laurel has asked for some clarification around the whole Abstract-Change-Pleasure formula that I lifted from Wallace Stevens' poem "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (you can read a version of it with some typos here). Now I was being very casual, not to say cavalier, with Stevens' rather vague terminology yesterday, but I'll see if I can unlock their meanings now so as to apply them with a little more precision.

Stevens' poem is long, often abstract, and more than a little portentous: in short, it's a doozy, and I can't claim to understand it fully. It was written in 1942 as was his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," one of his fuller explanations of the relationship between what he called "reality" and "the imagination." The timing is important: one of our most abstract major poets and a serious aesthete is trying to define poetry and its role in a time of war, a war that in 1942 it was far from certain that we would win. For Stevens, poetry as an act of the imagination is a response to the pressure of reality, and not at all in an escapist sense. As he writes, "By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events ont he consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation." An act of the imagination makes it possible to see reality and to have a critical relation to it rather than being wholly caught up in and of it. So far so good. What about this "abstract" business? Well, the poem puts it more beautifully:
There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
In the essay he imagines "the figure of a poet, a possible poet" (what in the poem I think he calls "major man") who "must have lived all of the last two thousand years, and longer," and writes that "although he has himself witnessed, during the long period of his life, a general transition to reality"—that is, the death of myth and the rise of reason (one is tempted to say, the dialectic of enlightenment which as Adorno and Horkheimer saw has itself become a myth) for him, "his own measure as a poet, in spite of all the passions of all the lovers of the truth, is the measure of his power to abstract himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstraction the reality on which the lovers of truth insist. He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination." So I take "It Must Be Abstract" to refer to a poem's ability to reframe the world (which includes the poet and her consciousness): to select details and play with them, creating new arrangements that might offer insight into the way they are actually arranged. Stevens uses the analogy of looking at a motionless object: it is your mind, your power of abstraction, that makes a chair seen from behind recognizable as the same chair we saw from above or the front. Abstraction is the mode of the imagination in which a relation with reality is established, and I recognize the degree of a poem's abstraction by the balance it strikes between the pressure of reality—that is, the pressure to see and narrate reality "realistically"—and the disarrangement of reality required to make visible what's really real: the forces or structures or motives or delusions that arrange the picture we get from politicians or our parents or TV or gossip or advertising. If I say that Jennifer Moxley is more abstract than Kevin Davies, I mean that the materials of the world are presented as being more alienated from the common world-picture in her poems than they are in Davies'. This has something to do with how she thematizes her own consciousness and maybe more to do with her peculiar, thorny syntax and diction. Davies' version of abstraction is that tried-and-true modernist technique of collage and fragmentation: he skips merrily from node to node so that we perceive the power of his imagination in the spontaneous association of elements which together give a picture of both the world and his attitudes toward it. "A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words." The differing picture, the other relationship to a consuming reality, from which one might have the perspective and space in which to imagine something different, is in the words.

"It Must Change." I think this is something akin to logopoeia: the play of and in language as language, "the dance of the intellect among words." Part of the problem with the way we're taught to read, I think, is that we put so much emphasis on similarity: the emphasis in most of the Shakespeare classes I've taken in my life has been on assimilating him, on praising him for his "universality." You're always hearing stories about inner-city kids being taught to relate to Romeo and Juliet through the trope of gang violence, or what have you. But this kind of reading loses difference: we lose sight of the blindingly obvious fact that Shakespeare's language is not ours. The kid who says, "I don't get this; this is strange" is in a sense a better reader than someone who's been educated to "relate" to the characters and plot. Poetry demands the reading of this fundamental difference: a shuttling back and forth between language-as-presence (which causes representation to fade) and what the language presents (which causes the words themselves to fade). The quality of change in a poem is that by which it promotes this movement:

The poem goes from the poet's gibberish to
The gibberish of the vulgate and back again.
Does it move to and fro or is it of both

At once? Is it a luminous flittering
Or the concentration of a cloudy day?
Is there a poem that never reaches words

And one that chaffers the time away?
Change is freshness: "The freshness of transformation is / The freshness of a world." Kevin Davies' poems constantly draw attention to their language as language and then shift your attention back to the objects, emotions, or pieces of rhetoric that stick to them like barnacles. Moxley, I think, is a little more interested in the presentation of state-of-mind, but as that state is constantly shifting she incorporates a lot of change as well.

"It Must Give Pleasure." It's tempting to complete the analogy-trilogy and assign this faculty to melopoeia—musicality—just as I've called "change" logopoeia and implied that abstraction is presentation of image or phanopoeia. But actually this is pleasure from a more philosophical standpoint, the pleasure of "later reason": the contemplation of reality that the poem has carved out a space for, which turns reality into an object of aesthetic pleasure:
But the difficultest rigor is forthwith,
On the image of what we see, to catch from that

Irrational moment its unreasoning,
As when the sun comes rising, when the sea
Clears deeply, when the moon hangs on the wall

Of heaven-haven. These are not things transformed.
Yet we are shaken by them as if they were.
We reason about them with a later reason.
This is all Heideggerian as hell: poetry discloses objects in their being and reveals too how Being gets concealed by ordinary, instrumental perception. Put simply, the pleasure of poetry is that of discovering order in apparent chaos:
            But to impose is not
to discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,

To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,

Seeming, at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk. To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,

The fiction of an absolute— Angel,
Be silent in your luminous cloud and hear
The luminous melody of proper sound.
That's the famous necessary Angel, there, as terrifying in his willed presence as Rilke's angels are in their overpowering reality. For me, the Angel represents whatever value the poet brings transcendent to the poem's materials. The pleasure of the poem, which exactly corresponds to its usefulness ("[The poet's] role, in short, is to help people live their lives"), derives from some principle, some value the poet brings or discovers through language to the world. For many poets the principle behind pleasure is difficult to discover because the poet actively submerges it in their materials: the reputed difficulty of Ashbery depends on the fact that his Angel is a chameleon who never offers a stable viewpoint between phrase and phrase. "It Must Be Abstract" refers to representation; "It Must Change" refers to language; "It Must Give Pleasure" is the direction, edge, or spin of the poem as a whole. I give "Pleasure" some priority in Davies because of his Marxism (too limiting a category but it will have to do): the value of greater equality and justice is the hinge on which he cracks open that space in reality that we are invited to play in. Moxley's presentation of social reality is complex in a different way and much harder on the self, or at any rate on the rhetorical situation of the speaker. She's a passionate ethicist, whereas Davies with his caricatures strikes me as more of a moralist, almost a pomo poetic Dickens. I do take pleasure in the conventional sense from Moxley, but it's not so much on the surface; again, this may have to do with formal differences. Davies is a poet of fragments, mostly, and I enjoy the paratactic relations of them. Moxley is a poet of the sentence and it takes more work to discover her, though the rewards are potentially richer.

Phew! After all that my introduction of Grood Poet 3 may have to wait another day.

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