Thursday, August 31, 2006

Caché

Films don't come much more unsettling than Michael Haneke's Caché, which I took in at Cornell Cinema (this is starting to become a habit) last night before dropping in on the English department's annual meet-n-greet party at the A.D. White House. It's a film about complicity: the individual's complicity with history and with the political policies of his nation, and the complicity of the viewer with what happens on screen. We never learn who's making the mysterious videotapes that push Georges and Anna off their complacent bobo perch, though the infamous closing shot suggests a mysterious collusion between their son Pierrot, and the son of the unfortunate Majid, an Algerian orphan whom Georges spitefully disenfranchised when they were both children. This mystery remains a provocation and irritant that lingers after the film has ended, mimetic of the bad conscience that Georges' private-eye antics fail to solve, and which can ultimately only be assuaged by sleeping pills.

When I see a film which privileges its technique and formal qualities over the usual Hollywood values, my thoughts turn to poetry, as with Days of Heaven (another film with class privilege on its mind) last week. Whereas Malick's film had the lushness and interiority of lyric, Haneke's self-conscious deployment of digital video, which turns the camera back on its habitual wielders far more effectively than "reality TV" does, makes me think of more those austere modes of modernism in which personal history and more global histories are made to interact so the reader can trace his or her own habits of constructing them. The example that comes to mind (and which affectively mimics both Haneke's coolness and his moral disgust) is Barrett Watten's Bad History, which among other things is an examination of the bankruptcy and exhaustion of the generation of '68 and of what is coming increasingly to look like an aberrant moment of spiritual expansion that has, like Majid's rooster, had its head chopped off and whose twitches are decreasingly lifelike. I also think of Bruce Andrews and of flarf—or rather of a poetry that could somehow succeed in re-presenting the word salad of our lives back to us in all its unalienated dismajesty, so that we recognized the world we have made. In other words, it's too easy to dismiss flarf as Other, as not our language, as something we personally privileged readers have no responsibility for. But maybe that's not flarf's fault, or art's fault—even watching Caché I found myself agreeing somewhat with Georges that he couldn't be blamed for something he did when he was six. But then that's the problem of responsibility: we've all been trained not to see ourselves as part of history, or to recognize the ways in which we've benefited from the horrors of primitive accumulation. (My great-great grandfather might have been dodging Cossacks in Russia, but that doesn't mean I haven't indirectly benefitied from the wealth extracted from American slave labor, for example.) Art falls short of moral instruction: it can only prick your conscience if you have one. Far from being a shortcoming of art, this points toward the failure of an education system and a culture which ruthlessly exports all "values" into the nuclear domestic heterosexual family. The aesthetic does include and require the ethical, but through the back door. What Haneke's film does, like Watten's poem, is show us how rotten the facade of the house is.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Fewer than three weeks before the wedding, a little more than two weeks before the MLA Job Information List opens for business, one day before my first class teaching Shakespeare. Instead of planning for any of these, I am rearranging a poetry manuscript. Over at right under "Poetry" I've listed some poems under the title, The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, in my opinion one of the best titles I've ever stolen (it comes from the last chapter of Kafka's Amerika, aka The Man Who Disappeared). In spite of this the manuscript's been rejected time and again by, well, almost everybody. This might have something to do with the current trend in poetry publishing, the concept book: a mere "collection" of poems isn't as sexy as a book that has some kind of narrative or metanarrative hovering about it. Akin to this is the formally unified book, in which a device, constraint, or composition method creates a kind of (wo)man on the flying trapeze effect that publishers and readers alike find compelling. I've written both kinds of manuscript, arguably at the same time. But Nature Theater doesn't fit into either of those categories. While there are definitely recurring themes and moods, and to me at least the book does tell something of a "story" about my engagement with my Jewish-Modernist heroes, the poems themselves are various in subject matter, tone, form, etc. I think there still ought to be a place for the collection and so I've resisted trying to turn Nature Theater into a hardcore concept book—or more to the point, the poems have resisted me. But that does leave the problem of arrangement. I've tried putting the poems in thematically consistent sections, and I've tried dividing the book into two sections that seem to somehow oppose each or complement each other, and I've tried creating a continuous stream in which elements that really recur by obsession appear to recur by design. I've never been satisfied with any of them, and so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the manuscript hasn't yet satisfied an editor.

This weekend I came up with a new arrangement that, at least for the moment, both satisfies and excites me, and restores the flow of the book's energy (when a manuscript hangs around for a long time it can get stale in the writer's mind, even if individual poems out of context still seem fresh and urgent): alphabetical order. It may seem like a cop-out—Ron for one has complained about magazines that publish their poets in alphabetical order, so as to shirk making editorial decisions about juxtaposition and conjunction. But surrendering to a constraint, even a simple one, has given my work a shot in the arm in the past, and I think it's happening again. In alphabetical order the poems interact in ways that I didn't force or control, and the conversation between them is far livelier than anything I've tried previously. Plus that quality of obsession that I mentioned earlier is, I think, more on the surface: more nerves are exposed. And the old poems are ventilated in a way that makes room for new ones: I've found a home for many of the poems I've written over the last two years (basically, post Severance Songs) here, and they engage playfully and provokingly with the older stuff.

Whether or not the new arrangement is pleasing to publishers, I hope it will please me enough to help me move on to something truly new. It can be hard to have an old project hanging over your head for years and years: hard to see past or under or through it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Odds and ends:

- What can I say about the experience of seeing Snakes on a Plane? A dramatic example of the power of low expectations: we were thoroughly entertained.

- Aaron has the word on how our Friday reading went, if you're curious.

- Also, I'd belatedly like to acknowledge poet Sina Queyras' short review of Compostition Marble, which she picked up passing through Ithaca while I was in Montana. Thanks for the kind words, Sina!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Saw this tonight at Cornell Cinema. It stars a very young and beautiful Richard Gere, a nearly as beautiful Sam Shepard (though I was often disconcerted by an unexpected resemblance to Denis Leary), Brooke Adams (who in face and voice often reminded me of my first great movie crush, Karen Allen, aka Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and an uncanny young woman named Linda Manz who also spiels one of Malick's trademark elliptical voice-overs. Set in the mid-1900s just before the United States made its entry into WW I, it shifts tone continually from something resembling socialist realism to something more like a fairy tale (or rather, one of the more fairy-tale like episodes in the Bible, the Book of Ruth), and then in its last fifteen minutes or so becomes a kind of reprise of Malick's Badlands. Above all I can't help but see it as a masterful espousal of and meditation on pastoral, especially since Malick is the American director whose sensitivty for nature combined with intensity of sheerly visual perception (though this is to slight the complex and beautiful soundtrack) is unmatched. Much of the first half of the film is taken up with images of labor on a vast wheat farm in the Texas panhandle: the work is dirty, dangerous, and exhausting, yet there's a kind of beauty and joy to it and to being part of the landscape that all of Malick's characters seem to find infectious. Then the pastoral mode shifts into the domestic interior of Sam Shepard's character's mansion on the hill; another kind of interlude precariously balanced on the lie that Gere and Adams are brother and sister rather than lovers. (In a kind of artistically magnanimous gesture that I can imagine few other directors pulling off, this interlude is prolonged by the arrival of a miniature circus via prop plane.) Shepard's discovery of the truth coincides with the arrival of a literal plague of locusts, and then a hellish firestorm which ends in the violent confrontation that had been deferred only by the integrity with which the figures of the film composed themselves in their beautiful wind-haunted landscape. At the end, after Gere has been hunted down for the apparent murder of Shepard, Manz, something of a wild child (whose wildness is magnified by the strangeness and beauty of her voice-over) is deposited at a dance academy where we are given to understand she will somehow turn into the teller of this story, or maybe as she at one point muses, "I could be a mud doctor, checkin' out the earth underneath." Adams, haunted by her part in the deception and in love with two dead men, is seen boarding a troop train, transformed metaphorically into a black-haired Helen. But the film resists allegory in whatever mode—Biblical, classical, Marxist—even as it invites a kind of doubled awareness in the viewer, who has the leisure (the otium) almost unheard of in contemporary films to look and look and to discover mystery in its images.
One of the things that fascinates me about Malick's films (I haven't yet seen The New World) is how often they're spoken of as being "poetic," and how right that description feels. This quality is easier to define negatively: plot, characterization, and dialogue have diminished importance in the films I've seen. But to speak positively, there's a curious mixture of extreme precision (one reviewer has noted that Malick's close observation of the wheat harvesting process could easily belong to a documentary) with the mythic, a combination I can't help but regard as quintessentially Modernist. Myth and precision meet most immediately in the lingering shots of natural phenomena, and also in the silent, listening faces of the actors (in Days often shot from below, magnifying their stature). Then there's the voice-over, which imposes a single startling subjectivity over the action and more or less substitutes for the usual through-line of fiction films, plot. This is a literally de-dialogizing move: Malick thus moves toward the poem and away from the novel/narrative in an almost Bakhtinian sense, except that the language of his voice-overs is not that of Homer or any other epic narrator, but the fragmented half-savage consciousness of a teenage girl. (In Badlands, the narrator is a disturbingly affectless and morally obtuse Sissy Spacek, while in The Thin Red Line we have the diffused "epistolary" narration of various soldiers; the Homer-loving Colonel played by Nick Nolte seems countered in his desire for a heroic narrative by the distracted terror of his men, minute figures in the wandering seagrass.)

Does this have anything to teach me as a poet? Perhaps only that "the poetic" is not a catalog of means, or at least not only that, but also a desired stance toward experience, and the staging of resistance toward the means of narration we associate with prose and the "true story" alike. There is also, it seems, a place for largeness and scope, and mixed contemplation of universals alongside socio-historical particulars. It's inspiring to think on. It reminds me that the process is the goal.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

SOON Reads Soon

SOON Productions founders and local poets, Theo Hummer, Josh Corey, Karen Anderson and Aaron Tieger team up to present selections from their work on Friday, August 25th at 7:30 in the Poet's Corner at Bookery II, 215 North Cayuga Street, Ithaca, New York.

SOON Productions was formed in 2004 to support innovative and small press poetry in Ithaca. According to Aaron Tieger, "We are committed to bringing new poetic and critical voices from across the region and around the country to present their work in the community." You can find out more about SOON Productions at http://soonproductions.org/wordpress/index.php.

Theo Hummer earned an MFA from Cornell in 2004 and is now at work on a PhD. Her poetry has appeared in Sentence, Vox, and The Indiana Review and on the Verse magazine website, and will be included in the Best New Poets 2006 Anthology. Her first chapbook, The Parrot Bride, recently appeared from Anchorite Press.

Josh Corey is the author of two prizewinning poetry collections, Selah (Barrow Street Press, 2003) and Fourier Series (Spineless Books, 2005), as well as the chapbook Compostition Marble, and mantains a popular blog on poetry and poetics at http://joshcorey.blogspot.com. He has been a Bookery II employee since 2003.

Aaron Tieger moved to Ithaca in 2004 from Cambridge, MA, where he was Poetry Editor at the magazine Art New England. In addition to numerous online and print publications, his work has appeared in the chapbooks Sea Shanties of Old Vermont (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003), Merge Point (Anchorite Press, 2004), Days and Days (Pressed Wafer, 2004), and February (Fewer and Further Press, 2006. His blog can be found at aarontieger.blogspot.com. He is the editor of CARVE, a small magazine dedicated to innovative and under-the-radar poetry whose seventh issue has just been released.

Karen Leona Anderson is a graduate of the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop and the recipient of a Rotary Scholarship to New Zealand who has had work published in Jubilat, Verse, Indiana Review, The New Republic, Fence, Pleiades, and VOLT. She is currently writing a dissertation on poetry and science at Cornell.

Bookery II is the city's largest and oldest independently owned bookstore and is located in the DeWitt Mall, in the heart of downtown Ithaca. Open Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 9:30 pm and Sunday 9:30 am to 6 pm.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Exhaustingly improbable character names gleaned from scanning the September issue of BookPage:

Miss Celeste Temple
Cardinal Chang
Stratham Younger
Cordelia Blackburn
"Highly successful hotelier Faith McBride"
"headstrong, brilliant teenager Fiona Montgomery"
"FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast [and] his demonic younger brother, Diogenes"
"Entertainment jounralist Mick Sever owes his career to pop star Gideon Pike"
Moon Blake
Gemma Bastian
Blogging has fallen low on the priority pole as of late, not so much because of busy-ness as because of stress over anticipated busy-ness. To wit:

- Teaching Shakespeare to freshmen starting Thursday (the plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and The Winter's Tale);

- Getting married (30 days remain);

- Beginning the search for an academic job;

- Finishing the sorely neglected dissertation.

That's a lot of a lot.

Still I'd like to record something of my impressions of Montana, especially the powerful nostalgia and sense of recognition I felt in Missoula and Helena, the two towns where I actually lived. Helena was where I picked up the pieces after the end of what had become a disastrous relationship, and after I found myself twenty-six years old with no career to speak of and no accomplishments save a dead novel in a cardboard box. I found a little furnished apartment just off the main street, which bears the melodramatic name Last Chance Gulch, licked my wounds, and returned to poetry after six years' absence. Certainly I was under the influence of Richard Hugo, whose work I'd first discovered while shirking my duties as messenger for an evil law firm at the New Orleans Public Library. And the landscape itself is a powerful influence, literally expansive after youth and young manhood in the East. In retrospect, it's clear I was also being influenced by a Helena poet who I worked with for a time at a guidebook publisher there, a man named Rick Newby. Last week I picked up his most recent book of poetry from The Montana Book Company just after breakfast at one of my favorite Helena haunts, the No Sweat Cafe. The book is The Suburb of Long Suffering from a local press, Bedrock Editions, and I was surprised by how good it was, how moving I found it. Surprised not because of any perceived deficiencies in Rick's earlier writing, but because I'd come to assume that my taste had evolved to the point of unrecognizability from that of the poetry reader I was ten years ago. Well, it isn't so: Rick Newby practices a sly, elegiac, thoroughly post-Modernist (by which I mean his sensibility has been woven and charged with the work of the modernists: painters as well as poets, and Europeans as well as Anglo-Americans) poetics that charms, pricks, and delights me. He risks sentimentality and also a surprising degree of Orientalism that he seems to get straight from Pound (there's a prose poem in here about how Jeanette Rankin, Montana's Congresswoman [first of her kind], was introduced via letter to Homer Loomis Pound, Ezra's father) but generally evades the charge through precision of imagery and careful attention to the Montana landscape in which he, his town, and European civilization are but precariously perched. Here's another prose poem—I find them the most quotable:
Montana Landscape Hypnotized by Solitude

for Peter Merts

The cast-iron stove gleams dull in diffuse light. The cobwebs, the antic breezes stirring curtains, the cattle rummaging in the tall grass. Nothing can capture the tranquility of this moment, not oils, not water-soluble resins, not the ready presence of a small camera tucked in a canvas bag and shuttered. It is so quiet you hear the squeak of a rabbit under the floor. Alert to your silence, a lover leads you to a cot open to the sun. Dare to shiver in this cool weather. In Japan, you encounter—erupting out of a bay—the snake-like profile of a sculptor's fancy. In your side yard, deer nibble, and a cougar glides through eucalyptus and lavender. Solitude is a savage word. Wear it faithfully, like a mendicant monk who dons his paper raincoat before setting out. Great cast-iron objects cast adrift on sand. Slim legs of a girlish firgure. Footsteps marching to the edge of continents. Verge of the sea. Gleam of seaweed. Rumble of breakers. Harsh wind. Tenderness at the knees.
The most remarkable work in the book is the title poem, which is among other things a pastoral meditation—I shouldn't be so surprised to realize that my interest in that genre dates back to Montana days, but of course it does. The imagining of Helena, a small (but it appears to be growing with dismayingly rapid speed—subdivisions everywhere, and I saw this also near Missoula and in the Flathead Valley) state capital in what most people wouldn't hesitate to call the middle of nowhere, as a suburb comes to seem apt, as suburb itself seems perfectly to describe that which is defined by its separation from the urban, traditional home of a polis which is nowadays nowhere to be found, just as no one is willing to define themselves as anything other than "middle class." Newby's suburb of long suffering is inhabited by strangers and wanderers: the Great Emperor, now seemingly in retirement from his career of domination and violence; the Strange Ones of Rose Alley, who represent the always only partially domesticated Other to be found in so-called open societies; Anna, a painter and the speaker's muse; and Newby's favored persona, the Man in the Green Loden Overcoat, alternately protected and isolated by his fears, his lusts, his aloneness. The poem's melancholy pleasures seem to me to come close to that synthesis of social formalism—the thinking-through-fragmentation of the contested place of subjectivity—and the poetics informed by myth that I have given the unsatisfactory and tentative name of wisdom poetry. It's good now to express my apreciation for Rick's work, and also to discover, as I did with Hugo, that strong impulses toward innovation can be found in the work of poets who some might dismiss as avatars of masculine quietude.

More later, maybe.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Montana

The view from our B&B just outside Glacier National Park.

Bob Baker and me outside the Liberal Arts building at the University of Montana.

Me and Emily and a friend in the main quad at the U of M.

Emily looking sassy on a hike in Glacier.

A passing mountain goat.

A Columbian ground squirrel is more interested in the camera than his larger friend.

Smoke plume from the Red Eagle fire, which was burning in the eastern half of the park.

I am subdued by Henry, the child of Emily's friend Cheri, who lives in Whitefish and guided us on a float down the North Fork of the Flathead River with her partner Dave.

The trigger for our trip was the wedding of my cousin Daniel to a lovely woman named Bethany from Livingston, MT. Here two of Daniel's dogs, Moses and Timber, wait for the ceremony.

Bride and groom. They'd carefully selected August 12 because it had only rained twice on that day for as long as they've been keeping records. Well, August 12, 2006 was the third day.

After the ceremony.

Unearthly evening light in a horse pasture near where the wedding took place.

A view of Yellowstone National Park.

An elk in Yellowstone.

View from Inspiration Point overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Yellowstone deer.


Two more elk (I think) near the entrance to the park at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Home. Tired. Scrambling to put my syllabus together for class, which begins next week. Tales of my travels anon.

Friday, August 04, 2006

I've had nothing to say thus far about the carnage in Lebanon and Gaza and I still don't really have anything to say, except that I am disgusted and horrified daily. It's difficult to orient myself in the narrow field of available positions that I find in the media and blogosphere. It seems to me that Israel is double damned for slaughtering civilians and for pursuing a strategy that has no chance of long-term success. But I'm hardly pro-Hezbollah, either: the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the likes of Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah is blood-curdling. It's hard enough to be an American and thus implicated in the imperial adventures that Bush & co. have led us into; to be a Jew in addition only amplifies that sense of existential disgust. But I am American and I am a Jew. Both of those identities are at historically associated with some of the most precious human values: why, then, are their most vociferous partisans so keen to discard any value other than might makes right, us versus them?

Flying to Montana tomorrow for ten days vacation, culminating in the wedding of my cousin Daniel in Livingston. Ten days goodbye to all that. While in Missoula I hope to meet the other Montana Josh that I'm aware of and hoist a beer at the Union Club. And then north to Glacier and later south to Yellowstone, to stare at creeks and mountains, bison and bighorn, and let the big big sky cover everything and everyone.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Been too hot and distracted to contribute to the conversation on ethical poetry that's been evolving in my comments box below. In addition to getting our wedding invitations printed and sent, we're preparing to travel to Montana on Saturday for almost ten days' vacation, the climax of which shall be my cousin Daniel's wedding in Livingston on the twelfth. Sad that I won't get to see Patricia as I'd originally hoped to do.

It occurs to me that "fully ethical" poetry might in some circumstances be better described as wisdom poetry. Curious the binary that sets up: "ethical" is cool and intellectual, while "wisdom" is warm and mystical, inclining maybe too quickly toward the likes of Kahlil Gibran, as Gabe suggested. I like wisdom because for me it has a sense of investment in the bodily—there's something overly Cartesian about ethics. (And I'm also thinking of how, in Dungeons and Dragons, Intelligence and Wisdom are separate character attributes, and you use the latter to determine whether your character notices something unusual, say, or to tell if another character is lying.) Real wisdom comes with thinking as a body among other bodies, and it also means thinking the past in such a way as to redeem it—to liberate the energies that historical trauma turns into bruises and contusions. To my mind that has something to do with the thinking of futurity that Benjamin Kunkel talked about in his essay on the memoir in last week's NY Times Book review, and which was also a topic in his magazine's "American Writing Today" feature that I blogged about a few months back. You can find a good summary in today's post at Long Sunday.

Anyway, as far as poetry goes, I agree that you can never abandon form and constraint without abandoning the terrain of poetry altogether. I'd just like to feel through to the significance of content a bit more quickly in my own writing, or at least some of my own writing: I reserve the right to simply fool around and see what develops, which is maybe only permitting language itself its own wisdom.

Reading quite a bit. Two sides of the pastoral manifest in two recent acquisitions: Paul Naylor's Arranging Nature (nicely reviewed here by Hank Lazer) and Gary Lenhart's The Stamp of Class. The one is a Romantic, downright Ronald Johnsonian excursion of the self into nature—but Naylor always maintains a kind of ethical reserve, sensitive as Adorno says we must be to natural history, which is the history of suffering that humans have inscribed on nature (in the same fashion that Kafka's torture machine inscribes prisoners). And yet nature promises someday simply to be, as lyric promises the rounded personhood that eludes most of us day by day and minute by minute. Can't quote the most gorgeous parts here because of the formatting, but it's a book I'm looking forward to going more deeply into. As for the Lenhart book, it's an engaging survey of American poets' engagement with class; among other issues, he looks at how rural and working-class poets have been fetishized for their supposed connection to the natural, which is of course the pastoral gesture par excellence as described by William Empson. That train of thought has brought me into closer contact with the work and life of John Clare, who features prominently in recent scholarship on poetry and ecology (I'm thinking particularly of Jonathan Bate's The Song of the Earth and Angus Fletcher's A New Theory for American Poetry). But Lenhart's poets are, after an initial chapter on the eighteenth-century English poets Stephen Duck and Ann Yearsley, variously American: Whitman of course, and Williams, but also Marcia Nardi (infamously assimilated into the good doctor's own Paterson) and David Schubert (subject of a lovely essay in Ashbery's Other Traditions), and chapters on Melvin Tolson, the New Americans, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, and Diane Wakoski, Eileen Myles, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, and Tracie Morris. Lenhart's concern, of course, is to establish and historicize the subjectivity of working-class poets; but he can't do that without also talking about how they've been used and abused (when not simply ignored) by the patrician literary establishment. (It does not seem irrelevant that every scholarly book I've linked to in this paragraph, including Ashbery's, was published by Harvard University Press except for Lenhart's, published by University of Michigan Press.) This too is important for my thinking about pastoral, which usually exploits the "natural" but which can also work to liberate the voices of those who have been history's objects—trees and humans alike.

Wisdom, futurity, redemption. Lenhart quotes a fragment of David Schubert's that seems relevant:
A ghastly ordeal it was. In
Retrospect, I am no longer young.
Wise, sad, as unhappy as seeing
Someone you love, with whom life has
Brought suffering, or someone you
Have nothing in common with, yet love--
Unable to speak a word.

If when I say this I weep, it is not
Because my heart has turned into a
Lachrymose commentator; the
Discus thrower's still
There--the shining one, quick. It is because
In my moment of rejoicing, I
Thought that one who has suffered with me shall
Rejoice. There was no
One. Not one answered.

Of suffering, who wants to be reminded?
Perhaps the best description of the heroism demanded from readers and writers of lyric poetry available.

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