Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Immersed in the first stages of the kabuki dance that is the academic job application process: writing letters, extracting a twenty-five page writing sample from two-hundred-odd pages of dissertation, and trying to parse what a particular school's advertisement signals about what they're really looking for. An unexpected benefit of this sort of head-scratching is that it re-engages me with my dissertation work, which has been lying fallow since midsummer, when the wedding preparations were first starting to heat up. Writing an abstract has been especially useful, as well as something of a relief: the damn thing coheres after all! When the envelopes are all licked and stamped I should be more than ready to return to the chapter on Ronald Johnson. I'm interested right now in his engagement with Ian Hamilton Finlay and wondering how I can learn more about it. It seems that they would have had very different temperaments: Finlay is actually much closer to the sardonic, critical spirit that I associate with "negative pastoral" than Johnson is. But then I see the three poets my dissertation deals with as something like stages in a dialectic: Pound as overreacher, Zukofsky as poet of renunciation, and Johnson as author of a radiant new attempt to "write paradise." Though I have no evidence as yet to support this, I suspect that Johnson's ARK was in part a reaction to Finlay's darker temperament. It will be interesting to see what I can turn up.

Feminism and chauvinism are very much on blogland's mind right now; as far as my own position goes, I'm somewhat inclined to agree with Jonathan when he writes that "nobody really wants to hear a man congratulate himself about how feminist he is." I will say, however, that the discussion has sharpened my approach to reading Beverly Dahlen's new book A Reading 18-20, just out from Instance Press (they don't seem to have a website but the book's available from SPD) and kindly sent to me gratis by Stacy Szymaszek, whose Emptied of All Ships I admire (I'm just a sucker for sea chanteys, I guess). I haven't read the other installments of the "A Reading" project, but this one impresses me as being one of the more moving and thoughtful variations on the subgenre that I've come to think of as "Frankfurt School poetry": poetry that immerses itself in the language and spectacle of modern capital, Arcades projects crammed with dialectical images, seekers after the truth content concealed by bits of governmental- and corporate-speak. The poetics of cognitive mapping, usually but not always unfolded over a particular urban space: the most recent work of Joshua "You can't spell 'Marxist' without 'Matrix' Clover comes to mind but also Rob Fitterman's Metropolis project, Kevin Davies' work, and almost everything I've seen from Atelos (especially books by Rodrigo Toscano and Ed Roberson). While many, many poets work this territory, these writers stand out for me for writing most often in books and series rather than individual poems: they take deep breaths and plunge for long periods into the spectacle, scalpel in hand. The major precedent or "root poet" for this approach is probably Jack Spicer, whose Collected Books map a lot of territory, including American politics and baseball, the currents of homosexual desire, and quite often the literary itself (from the first book, After Lorca, a necography of the Spanish visionary poet, to the last, The Book of Magazine Verse, a witty riff and deconstruction of the American media scene in the mid-Sixties). I don't know if this comes close to explaining the generally masculine tenor of this mode of writing: certainly Spicer himself had little use for women. But I am interested to see that Dahlen, who like Lisa Robertson seems interested in interrogating not only capital but poetry itself, engages directly with Spicer, not only in the title of her book A Reading Spicer and 18 Sonnets but in the present volume, who makes an appearance at the beginning of "A Reading 20" as a kind of revenant of negativity:
Redundancy is an antidote to psychic noise Ted says and writing it now I wonder can that be part of the poem or I'm starting to worry what's part of the poem like Spicer who seems to be fussy about that all the time what's in the poem and what's not what you can bring in and can't how old that feels to me how long I've thought of that not wanting it never occurred to me to credit Spicer now there's a paranoiac boob old false face lumbering, something about the raw and the cooked, bulges, and what you could put into that sack and maybe watch it squirm out the edges the poem a sack of kittens to be drowned. reading Spicer that's morbid his morbidity one side of that affects me strongly something at the boundary of civilization someone who lots of the time was beyond the pale.
I'm engaged by the personal tone of this, the sense of Dahlen's presence as a thinker: she seems to have less need of the ironic mask that most of the other poets of this mode that I've mentioned feel compelled to wear. Reading Dahlen reading, I often feel like I'm both enjoying the poetry and also reading a kind of brilliant textbook or at least sketchbook of a poet's progress: a poet who's also very much a critic (and isn't that what consistently appeals to me the most, the poetical-critical boundary?). The poetry per se, or rather the verse, happens between prose poems that take up the texts of predecessors and comrades, continually resituating Dahlen's "reading" in a shifting yet bracingly contemporary landscape. This is where we come from, this is where we live, this is the voice of the real mumbling in the breath of the commodity:
sheltering tough thought in exchange for the thickened plot
the deliberate colors of the fall from grace in a frosted glass
an eternal winter sunset qualified by artifice
by the hairs on her chin dowdy gray
by sexual ambiguity by the refusal to be the classic straight line
by prickly holly thorns below south the sun in the shape
of a rooster's foot inching towards Lapland
where the witches live

upon whom the sun has gone down

quoted on the bare bricks of Market Street
is it the end yet said my grandfather dying
darkness is all Were
proud? Of what? To buy

a thing like that.
I'm moved by Dahlen's attempt to construct a usable past in this poetry, a past which she puts under considerable pressure, finding what's living and vital in old chauvinist bastards like Spicer and Pound. It's a path that has, I feel, much to teach me.

No comments:

Popular Posts