Thursday, December 24, 2009

Prose's Poetry

Winter break is here, and after turning in my grades, jaunting to New Jersey for most of a week so that my parents could spoil Sadie, and a bout of flu, it's Christmas Eve, which means this secular Jew has for the first time in a while a moment to look about him.

What's caught my attention is a terrific interview with Renee Gladman conducted by Joshua Marie Wilkinson that's the last thing to appear in the alphabetically-by-author edited latest issue of Denver Quarterly. Though a prose writer—now a fiction writer (a distinction I'll say more about below), Gladman identifies with poets and poetry, partly because of her early training in philosophy (there's not much of a tradition in this country of philosophically informed fiction; poetry of course is another story) and partly because poets are conscious of community (I wish to add an asterisk to that word, though, or at least to point the reader back to Lisa Robertson's salient commentary on the word's unfreedoms) in a way that fiction writers are not. As Gladman says, this is partly for reasons of cultural capital but also, and more intriguingly, because of the "form" (her scare quotes) of prose itself: "I find that [prose] texts differ so much from one author to another that the genre connecting them remains a bit of a mystery, which, in some ways, benefits the writing, keeps it from growing stale. But, in other ways, doesn't provide enough of a center to bring people together."

Gladman's been on my radar for a long time: for starters, we were classmates at Vassar. Though I don't remember ever meeting her or sharing a classroom with her, it's likely that this did occur at some point—it's a small school. She, along with Camille Guthrie and Duncan Dobbelman, are the only writers I know of who graduated from Vassar in the early Nineties who went on to pursue a broadly experimental or innovative approach to their work. The Vassar English Department, as I recall it, was a profoundly conservative (with a small-c) institution: the only time I ever heard the word "postmodernism" was in a class taught by a visiting instructor whose name I can't remember, and my poetry teacher there, Eamon Grennan, was and is a composer of pellucid first-person lyrics, whose spirit of negative capability is captured in the equivocal titles he favors for his books: What Light There Is, As If It Matters, etc. He was a wonderful teacher in many ways, a lover of Shakespeare, whose Irish accent guided me inside the language in a new way as he read poems by Lowell and Larkin and Berryman to us. But I still remember his critique of a sestina I wrote inspired by the Coen brothers film Miller's Crossing; it was not, I'm sure, a good poem, but what he focused on was its debt to pop culture, which ipso facto rendered it shallow. It's taken me many years to undo the damage of that, or at least to turn what I at first accepted as Parnassian prohibition into a useful skepticism about poetic prohibitions in general. So it goes with my undergraduate education in general: though I'll always be grateful for the solid and broad grounding in actual literature that I received there, it was and to some small extent remains an obstacle to my encountering of the contemporary, the real-time.

Gladman majored in philosophy at Vassar and that, perhaps, has made all the difference. As a gay black woman she was troubled, to say the least, by the absence of an inscription point for her subjectivity in the history of Western philosophy, but it must have given her mind some rigorous exercise nevertheless, and then as she says she discovered that poetry could give her that point of inscription. Or as she says, "I was most interested in experience—how you obtain it, how you 'capture' it—but what led me to poetry rather than fiction, where experience is captured all the time, was a need to slow the whole thing down, to draw out the moments of experience, expose the gaps." I think this gets at some of what I was trying to express in my admittedly jejune griping about fiction this past spring (it should be obvious now that this griping was really a way for me to psychologically clear the decks for my own return to fiction). That is, fiction "captures" experience in part by hurrying it along, by encoding it in forms (characters, plot, descriptions, dialogue) that take their interest from their motion rather than immersion. Becoming versus being. "I started looking intensely at the mundane," Gladman says, because the mundane is where doing gets closest to being—experience qua experience which must always remain uncaptured. "Drinking apple juice. Eating soup."

(I am also reminded at this point by another interview in PEN American between Richard Ford and a young writer of short fiction named Nam Le. I looked at his book of stories, The Boat, and I wasn't particularly impressed, but I did enjoy this moment of heresy in the interview: "Yesterday I was thinking out loud and said that maybe the problem with fiction is human beings, characters. We funnel everything through characters. And when you're dealing with something that involves mass influence and forces that have come about because humans have joined in unpredictable—or predictable—ways, then it seems like the worst kind of bad faith to think you can allegorize that into a simple human story. But if you diffuse that into many human stories than you diffuse the narrative. Why is it that every single apprehension of some great historical incident or atrocity has to come through the story of this guy or that guy, or this woman who was there, and maybe fell in love with that other person?" It's a wonderful and necessary question, but the closest he and Ford come to answering it is with the idea that "a story between this person and that person is the ambassadorial story for their time and place in history." Which is a good defense of character-based realistic fiction but at the same time nakedly reveals the complete absence in such fiction of anything an intelligent person can call "realism." Anyway.)

As I mentioned above, Gladman makes an interesting distinction between the kind of hybrid prose she's published thus far—the "prose block" is how she and Wilkinson describe the form—and fiction, because as far as she's concerned none of her fiction has been published yet. (That will change with the publication of her novella Event Factory, the first in a trilogy to be brought out by the mysterious "Dorothy, a publishing project"—if they have a web presence I haven't discovered it.) The books of Gladman's that I've read and enjoyed, Juice and The Activist, definitely play with narrative without quite leaving the grounds of what I'd call poetry. Part of what's attractive about them is their hybridity, which is captured in this notion of the prose block, which Gladman calls "the articulation of my personality, the body of my thinking. It captures a tone, a feeling toward language, that I have not been able to conjure in any other form.... A block of text is a moment of travel that captures a pattern of experience and holds it there. The white space says, 'Look at it!'" In other words, her hybrid writing imports some of that tension between the sentence and the line, fundamental to the functioning of poetry which calls a near-halt to becoming, into prose, primarily by organizing white space (there's a fair bit of parataxis to her writing as well, though nothing as disjunctive as a New Sentence). The logic of the line break becomes the white gulf around the block of prose, floating there on the page.

"In fact, what makes writing fiction interesting is this unshakeable desire to stay still, how that troubles the instinct of sentences to progress." It's a dialectic between stillness and movement that Gladman's hybrid prose enacts. And though presumably her new commitment to fiction-qua-fiction must mean coming to terms with "progress," she's still interested in thinking about the sentence in a way that, I rather suspect, doesn't occur to most fiction writers: "I am loosely interested in questions of event, character, and time as they encounter the experiment of the sentence. That is, the sentence that does not attempt to coalesce the problems of narrating experience in language but rather is invested in exploring the dynamics of these problems.... [W]ithout the awareness that as you're moving through language you must come to terms with the instinct of our parts of speech to write linearly with a clear destination, you're missing what's so intensely fascinating about the sentence and the relationship of self to it."

Gladman's idea of prose needs poetry: the consciousness of the internal and social tendencies of speech to progress in linear ways, coupled with the desire to throw monkey wrenches in the path of that progress, so as to encounter experience without capturing it (or letting it slip through your fingers, it amounts to the same thing). A writer most at home in the sentence, or the paragraph, who needs that volta, that break, to feel that writing is sufficient to an identity-experience that has spent most of history on the invisible margins. It fascinates me. As a poet I have often adventured with the prose poem or prose block (I have a chapbook that consists of nothing but) and felt that the logic of the line break was still with me, though I depended maybe more on parataxis than white space. Now that I'm writing a novel which is, in many ways alas, a conventional novel with a story to tell, I'm bewitched by sentences, by their flow (Gladman says that when she writes in longhand, as I'm doing, the sentence takes precedence over the paragraph and I find that true for me as well). Perhaps some other, future project will take me into this fruitful zone of hybridity (or maybe it's yet to occur in the novel-writing process, or maybe it's occurred and I'm blind to it), but I am now very curious to read Gladman's "fiction" and to discover what is and isn't "poetic" about it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Taking a few minutes away from grading creative writing portfolios to write this. The novel chugs along, but for the past week and a half at semester’s end I’ve been devoting my limited writing time to assembling a new manuscript of poems. It surprises me that I can do this, but I was inspired by Catherine Wagner’s My New Job, one of five interesting (and as always, handsomely designed) titles that the good people at Fence Books have seen fit to send me. These are:

  • Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton. I hadn’t heard of Kearney before this but I love the highly visual language he’s come up with for these poems, especially given their usage of popular rap songs as source material. It’s as if Tom Cruise’s virtual crimesolving screen from Minority Report were being used to track black American culture.
  • Macgregor Card’s Duties of an English Foreign Secretary. I haven’t spent much time yet with this book from one of the former editors of The Germ. But one of the notes in the back caught my eye—it’s apparently a book written in tandem with another poet’s book, a woman whose name escapes me (don’t have the books here). That’s an interesting and tricky way to bring off a collaboration.
  • Laura Sims’ Stranger. Spare, sad lyrics in memoriam for Sims’ mother. Mostly I am struck by how both the haunting Gerhard Richter cover image and the subject matter (the loss of a mother born in the 40s and lost in the 90s) rhyme with that of Selah.
  • Elizabeth Marie Young’s Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize. Playful postmodern prose poems that suck me in with their exuberance (Lyn Hejinian’s blurb claims that they “linguisticate”). Arranged in alphabetical order just like Ashbery’s new book Planisphere (little J.A. needs no links from me). My observation is that this looks great on a table of contents page provided you’ve used most of the letters of the alphabet and if not, not.

Of the bunch it’s Wagner’s that has held my interest most closely—I’ve admired her for a long time for Miss America and Macular Hole (also available from Fence), books which attack the feminist project from a space at once cerebral and visceral. My New Job continues this, taking on female sexuality where Miss America was primarily concerned with images of the feminine and Macular Hole was preoccupied with pregnancy and childbirth (you could say then that the books are published out of order).

My New Job has a savage and sexy wit, but its greatest strength is its formal variety. And when I saw from the notes in the back that it’s actually a compilation of chapbooks, I was newly inspired to see what could be done with my own chapbooks of the past few years, Compos(t)ition Marble and Hope & Anchor. The age has demanded or seemed to demand in the past fifteen years the concept book: poems with a plot, or at least books with some discussable and therefore promotable “hook,” concept, or master form. The poetry collection as such has become antiquated, territory ceded to Quietism.

This is a shame, because as much as I like concept books (as a progressive rock fan from way back I’ve always loved concept albums, rock operas, and other such pretensions: long live Thick as a Brick, long live “Bohemian Rhapsody”!), they do have a tendency to subordinate and overdetermine the poems. That’s why the year-ago workshop on Severance Songs was so valuable to me: my friends convinced me that superimposing a conceptual structure on those poems was suppressing their native energies and alchemies. Removing that superstructure helped me to rediscover the infrastructure that was already there, the real conversation those poems were always having with each other about ethics and aesthetics, love and shame.

My New Job splits the difference in a way by being not a collection of poems but a collection of chapbooks, each of which seems to manifest a degree of conceptual unity but which, as sections, have a relation to each other I can only describe as paratactic. It has inspired me to create a new assemblage of my chapbooks and of chapbook-sized sections of new poems, and though it doesn’t have a title yet I can tell that they fit and resonate with each other in surprising ways. (Surprising at least to me: most surprising is the apparent consistency of my own sensibility—I don’t appear to be anywhere near done with what you might call the ironic baroque.)

It’s a pleasure to be actively working on poetry again and to be thinking about the questions putting a poetry book together asks of me, while simultaneously slowly accreting the bits of narrative that will eventually, I trust, cohere into something I can call a novel. Not the least pleasure now available to me is that of procrastination: if I don’t feel like working on one project I can always fiddle with the other, and go to bed in the evening feeling like I’ve accomplished something no matter what.

Speaking of Severance Songs, Tupelo now tells me it won’t be published until Spring 2011. This is disappointing, but it does mean more time to get things exactly right. And with any luck its publication will coincide with my first sabbatical, so that I can actually take the time to go on the road with the book in a way I’ve never quite done before. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eckhart Tolle IS John Ashbery

That's the conclusion I drew from reading Adam M. Bright's article "Here, Now: Eckhart Tolle Takes the Stage" in the new magazine The Point, "a Chicago-based print journal devoted to rigorous intellectual essays on contemporary life," that I picked up at the newsstand before boarding the train to work this morning. (Parenthetically, I love taking the train to work; I love that there's an actual newsstand—a very well-stocked one—at Chicago and Main in Evanston.) The article is an appreciative look at Tolle's philosophy that addresses the fact of skepticism toward New Ageism and gurus in general but doesn't really try to argue or persuade the reader; in so doing, Bright adopts Tolle's stance as his own without really trying to convince of his critical distance. "Escaping thought and returning to Being is my life’s purpose if I believe it is. It’s a blank-faced bovine god if you believe it’s not."

But what fascinated me most about the piece was how its description of Tolle's spiritual practice—and I do believe it's a spiritual practice, though it boggles me how Bright could neglect its obvious connections to various strands of Eastern mysticism and meditation practice in general—amounts largely to disidentifying the self with the mind, and how well this seems to describe the poetic practice of John Ashbery. Tolle tells his audience that they must step back from the interior monologues that accompany all of our actions, to view them dispassionately as "possessing entities," and to step into "a depth in that still alert space between thoughts and that is here, now." Isn't that "between thoughts" where the action happens in an Ashbery poem and its bewilderingly sinuous, pseudo-hypotactic sentence structures? Consider this little chunk of Flow Chart:
The incubus awoke from a long, refreshing sleep.
A lot of people think they have only to imagine a siren for it to exist,
that the truth in fairy tales is somehow going to say them. I tend to agree
with dumb people who intervene, and are lost; actors of a different weakness
who explain the traceries of fallen leaves as models for our burgeoning etiquette,
a system that does't let us off the hook as long as we are truth and know it,
the great swing of things. And of course it may yet turn up.
I couldn't believe he said it. But that's the way we lived. It existed.
I've been at this stand for years and I think I see how the wool
is pulled over our eyes gradually, so that each of us thinks of ourselves as falling asleep
before it happens, then wakes to a pang of guilt: was it that other me again?
Why did I take my mind off the roast, as it turned
hypnotically on its spit, and now it's charred beyond recognition?
As with many Ashbery poems this excerpt seems to adopt the neurosis of modern postindustrial life as its subject matter, but it's Ashbery's form—the emptied-out conjunctions that coordinate without coordinating, subordinate without subordinating—that actually give us the feel of dipping into the stream of consciousness without ever capturing or summarizing or taking firm hold of that consciousness, as a cupfull of muddy water bears an at best metonymic relationship to the Mississippi River.

I don't know if Ashbery lives in the state of nirvana-like bliss that Bright ascribes to Tolle, if he actually places his "self" within what Tolle calls "presence" as opposed to "the mental story of me." But I've often felt my own response to his poetry mirrors somewhat Bright's response to Tolle: frustration at my inability to conceptualize what any given poem seems to be up to gives way to delight in what Ashbery has called "the experience of experience," a delight homeomorphic with boredom. Tolle's persona eerily mirrors this: as Bright writes, "Tolle’s charisma, the magnetic quality of his personality, is almost an anti-charisma. He’s made himself so boring, punched so far through the back end of dullness, that we feel his simplicity must represent some incredible inner power." Anyone who's ever actually been in Ashbery's presence or heard him read might nod with recognition at this.

The comparison for me highlights the nigh-invisible separation between genius and charlatanism that dogs the reputations of both men. Yet I am more skeptical about Tolle than Ashbery. I suspect Tolle's teaching probably does bring about actual good in people's lives, whereas I'm not sure Ashbery's influence has been entirely healthy for poetry. But I think the effort to conceptualize what Ashbery is up to is good and necessary: his writing is a kind of puncture or suture in our discourse that generates critical thought and perhaps pushes it into more open and dialectical directions, even if "You have it but you don't have it" ("Paradoxes and Oxymorons"). There seems to be no such effort to think Tolle, who presents himself in a profoundly un- if not anti-intellectual way, and Bright's article doesn't ultimately do much to challenge this.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The number of visits to this blog since its inception in January 2003. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nel mezzo del romanzo

I heard an interview with Zadie Smith on the radio the other day—she has a new book of essays out, and coincidentally is about to give birth—and she talked about writing novels and how beginnings were painful and endings exruciating, but the middle was something else again: it was... narcotic. To paraphrase how she put it, when you're in the middle—which doesn't necessarily mean the geographic middle of the finished book—your spouse might be telling you s/he wants a divorce and all you can think about is whether "rummaged" or "rifled" is the better word. You're lost in the world of sentences, and the actual world loses its usual opacity.

Then there's this quote from the essential new book Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, in a letter from Paul Hoover to Albert Flynn DeSilver. DeSilver's previous letter had outlined various projects from building a house in Marin County to various literary and artistic works, including a "Novel" (the scare quotes are his). In Hoover's response he talks about his single novel, which met with some success (and was the occasion for a entertaining book of poems, The Novel, a bemused meditation on the prestige of the form), adding "I know that novels were never mine to do." And then there's this: "Novels steal attention from poetry, long prose also.... The theft is of time and labor, not of inspiration."

"The theft is of time and labor, not of inspiration." I know Paul is only speaking for himself here, but it confirms my experience of the past eight months. Writing Miramare (a working title), I had some expectation that the novel would become the open repository of everything I was thinking and feeling, vampirically absorbing other energies. Because the last time I attempted a novel, in my early twenties in New Orleans (1993 - 1996), I definitely experienced Zadie Smith's absorptive "middle." The writing was real—the story, my characters, the music I listened to while writing (florid stuff: Prokofiev, Queen)—while the rest of my life, which frankly at that time was something of a disaster zone, faded by comparison. I didn't write any poems—didn't, at that time, think of myself as a poet any more, though I'd been writing poetry seriously since I was fifteen—and often, didn't even write the novel, which became too big to face, since I'd staked everything on it. When I finally had to give it up as a bad job I lost my mind a little bit, at one point even finding myself in a military recruiter's office. I almost joined the Marines (hard to picture, I know), but very fortunately moved to Montana and started writing poems again instead. Such are the hazards of fiction writing!

Of course I'm older now and a little less naive about writing and its limited powers of replacing life. And what I've found is that this time, writing a novel hasn't taken anything from me except a little time that I wasn't using anyway (the half-an-hour to hour or so before I go to bed each night). I'm still writing poems—not at any breakneck pace, it's true, but at about the same rate as usual when there isn't a larger book project I'm deliberately writing toward—and I even have a little energy for thinking about scholarly matters from time to time. (Just now David Lau's review of terrific-sounding new books by Norma Cole and Andrew Joron in the latest issue of Lana Turner has greatly clarified for me what I was trying to say in my UIC talk about epistemology versus ontology in contemporary poetry—that's grist for another post.)

What consumes life is life: teaching, advising students, administrative duties, being a husband and father, etc. In an interview between Jennifer Moxley (who also has a new book out) and Daniel Bouchard in The Poker #8 a few years back, she speaks of the dilemma of the fact that "language takes up time." "Is the time that it takes to articulate your life—is that a good deal? Should you just not articulate it? You know, is it taking your life away from you?" This follows an arresting exchange and image:
Jennifer: every time you create a narrative, every time you create grammar, syntax, you destroy time.

Dan: You destroy it? Lose it?

Jennifer: Well, you can't get it back.

Dan: But not in the sense of wasted.

Jennifer: No, I wouldn't say wasted. But um ... if you can imagine the image of a human being disintegrating from top to bottom, and, if you're a writer, what you're building up next to you is text, right? So pretty soon you'll be gone and the text will be left. But there's a sense of is that experience or is that something else?
The ancient hubris of poets produces this Faustian bargain: give up some portion of your life to writing, and immortality might be yours. Or who [Time's] spoil of beauty can forbid? / O, none, unless this miracle have might, / That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Whether or not you write that image, that human image in Moxley's vision, will disintegrate. And the text you stack up in your image supplements that disintegration—more life is not part of the bargain. What you get to keep is only a kind of attentiveness. Or that narcotic that Smith talks about, which Jennifer talks about too: "the space of writing is more interesting than doing anything else. It becomes kind of addictive, it feels more alive, and I think that that's a little bit scary and threatening."

In some ways that's what my novel is about. Just as Severance Songs is about the struggle with beauty, with an[aesth]eth[et]ics, in addition to whatever else it may be about, Miramare is about time and memory, and the way they dissolve into each other when the reader's eye moves across the page, creating the illusion of living more than one life. In that respect it's a form of therapy, but specifically a writer's therapy, which always only has one sort of "cure" in view: restoring the possibility of future writing. This is my path to the next work, which I think will probably be poetry again.

I am in the middle. Not I hope in that narcotic sense, but in a literal sense (I feel myself to be halfway through a first draft) and in Dante's sense, the middle of my way, in which I am necessarily lost, so that I may find it again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Novel Writing

"And now it’s time for novel writing, which today comes from the West Country, from Dorset."

Narrative is so fundamentally different from lyric. This is kind of obvious, but writing both of them, I'm amazed by the different muscles they employ, and the different satisfactions they produce.

The pleasures of poetry are the pleasures of simultaneity. I read a line of verse, and it's like a chain reaction of little detonations: the sound play, the layers of reference (in the line's structure, diction, proper names, etc.), the manifestation of images, and the instantaneous revisions of the preceding lines created by the double-jointed syntax made possible by line breaks. It's an intensely vertical experience, though this feels less the verticality of the words themselves (most poems, of course, are narrower than the page they're printed on, unless they're very long-lined) than the vertical layering of a palimpsest or of one of those old biology textbooks with overlays for the skin, musculature, circulatory system, and skeleton (often these depths are presented unequally and with simultaneity, so that even on the first page you can see the bones of the hand, the red fist of the heart, the striations of the quadriceps, etc.).

With narrative it truly is one damn thing after another. Words and details accumulate like grains of sand in an hourglass; though you'll never remember all of them, though many of these details are all but designed to be forgotten, they nevertheless heap up into the foundations of characters, places, plots, themes, weathers, worlds. Right now I'm working on a chapter (though I hesitate to call my units of composition chapters—they're more like sections, or threads) in which one of my narrators (I have several) is about to meet the woman who will change his life. That's the moment: if I were writing a poem, I might present it directly, or even more likely ellipsize it and present the aftermath through a few coordinated details.

But because it's a narrative I write toward this event, filling in the moments of my character's lonely life in an overheated studio apartment in Washington Heights in 1971, conscious of growing suspense as this woman's presence is intimated without her actually manifesting. Every night I sit down to write thinking Now, now she will appear, and yet she never quite appears. And yet none of what I'm writing is filler: the words are grains of salt or sand for the event to stand on, but also I hope savory in themselves, and they work to evoke what I find most attractive about novels (and rare in poems), the feeling of immersion in a world.

But I no longer seek complete immersion; the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner said it was a novelist's duty to conjure. I don't want the words to disappear as easily as they once did. But neither do I want them, as I usually do with poems, to remain primarily words, striking upon the eardrum and memory, vivid morsels like Proust's madeleine, which must lose its present-tense existence in the moment of recollection. Instead I seek a kind of flicker effect, a sense of the grain of the form, as might a filmmaker who simulates scratches on the emulsion or chooses black-and-white so as to make the film's filmness part of its content. I want my readers sweltering in that room full of fug and flaking leaded paint, high above February streets dusted with the dry, fine snow that real cold can bring; but I also want them caught in the coils of my sentences (my narrator's sentences), feeling in their unfolding syntax his characteristic mix of melancholia, hopefulness, and delirium.

And so with any luck narrative ceases to be a single line and becomes dual, parallel, multiple, a train track the reader straddles or hops between on her ride toward some sort of resolution of the story and of the languages it gets told in.

Next time, I hope to think through the seductions of realism, and why it is that I've been unable to resist them, in spite of a healthy suspicion of the claims usually made on realism's behalf.

Friday, October 16, 2009

After Form Fails

That's one of my own lines. From an untitled (they're all untitled) severance song:
After form fails a furling, reports dying

away, look away. The panicle sprouts from the clavicle,

from spinal grimace, ribs fasicled by the itch of a glance
that struts the struck organ feeling out a musty

boom, branching beneath a witch’s hands,
stone melody, capillary cracks reach the trunk,
sink rootward, birth a sneer—burnt leaves

swirling, surling in a downstreamed capacity
for the history of planks, knit brows, wrung
fingers letting loose the bloody handkerchief

to be found. And after all this force evolution
still has its job to do, mentoring the soil or honoring

the split sky, though irradiated, defining a pair of eyes

as the interrupted light they bridge by raising.
Very late revelation or discovery that what these poems are about, if they're about anything other than what each is individually about (love, war, rage, impotence), is form. The form of the sonnet, which each poem evokes by being fourteen lines long; and form's capacity or incapacity to deal with, adapt, respond adequately to the postmodern life of their author, circa 2001 - 2008, aka The Bush Years. The Odyssey frame I tried building around the poems was a crude attempt at narrativizing what's already implicit in the poems' struggles with the sonnet form: form as a refuge as necessary as it is corrupt and imperfect.

A solace for pained thought that it insulates, poetic form is like the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from infection but also severs it from the chaotic life of the body, which is "out there" while the brain hunkers down in its carapace. Attempts to break that barrier are suicidal: the results are encephalitis (swelled head), epilepsy (ecstasy), MS (short circuit), and Alzheimer's (disappearance).

Form attacks form. In the rupture, the space between, fleeting possibilities of action--of the subject--might appear. Or else the subject might be, like a replicant fleeing its incept date, dead before it leaves the table.

Body questions body: uneasy in possession of and by it, these poems like ungainly dancers (like Berryman's dancer at Henry's bier, let some thing fall out well) collide limbs, torsos, reach up searchingly, contract into defensive crouches, clownlike, stumbling, or else self-consciously graceful, gracile, pursued by the lagging spotlight of the reader's attention between densities of logo-, melo-, phanopoeia.

The sonnet is dead; long live the death of the sonnet.

After form fails, more form.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Leap

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

In my intro to creative writing class this past Tuesday, a student asked a crucial question. Roughly paraphrased, she said something like, Okay, I see the value of paratactic and dissociative writing. But how can we learn to write that way?

I think maybe what she meant was, How do you know, when you break the rules, that you're doing it right?

I think of Dylan's, "to live outside the law, you must be honest."

And I think of the leap I ask my students to make from texts centered on the writer—writing for yourself, expression—to texts propelled toward a reader—direct presentation of the thing, machines made of words, construction, all that good Modernist stuff.

And these lines from Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tuuum:
We must destroy syntax by placing nouns at random as they are born. And:

We must abolish the adjective so that the naked noun can retain its essential color. And:

(GREEDY SALTY PURPLE FANTASTIC INEVITABLE SLOPING IMPONDERABLE FRA-GILE DANCING MAGNETIC) I will explain these words I mean the sky sea mountains are greedy salty purple etc. and that I am greedy salty purple etc. all that outside me as well as in me absolute totality simultaneity synthesis = the superiority of my poetry over all others stop
Marinetti was a Fascist, of course, like Pound. But at least it can be said of Marinetti that his work got less interesting the more Fascist he became.

The moment, the leap comes when you learn to materialize the signifier. When words are visible in their essential colors. Then even adverbs (which I ban) are okay, because they are no longer dead circuits but curious arcs of electricity that cause verbs to bristle differently, like a dog's fur stroked the wrong way.

How to teach this beside procedure.

I don't think much of Robert Bly these days, but I remember my mother's yellow yellowing copy of Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations that I took down from the shelf one day as a teenager and it did lead me deeper into what I mean. And he helped me to articulate why Stevens was my favorite poet.

Bly: "a poet who is leaping makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance."

I'm less interested in these days in psychic substances. My preferred term for the leap in modern poetry, parataxis, stays on the surface, leapfrogging unlike elements from a mix of materials social, psychic, mediated, gathered, scattered, and overheard. As Wilde said, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

It's difficult to keep students on the surface. Often I ask the question, What's the difference between poems and prose? I get various right answers: it's rhythmic, it's compressed, etc. I point at the page: Look at all that white space! Look at that ragged margin! Weird, right?

They agree with me that it's weird.

I show them all kinds of paratactic stuff. I ask them to write poems that repeat phrases, that braid associations, list poems. Today we'll try some Google-sculpting. They like it, they get it. They don't get it, they don't like it. I persevere.

I believe this is valuable for writers and for non-writers. Seeing what's in front of our noses. Ringing the coin on the table for its true note. Biting, like the book says, the error. I persevere.

I was born and raised into a sense of distance from language, a distance that bred affection and longing. Wordplay is literally my mother tongue. We amused each other endlessly with rare birds of speech.

Now I put that experience, that inheritance, into each semester, shoulder queerly to the wheel. I persevere.

One day I will give their adverbs back to them. Today, even.

Can you push someone into leaping. Can you pull.

Monday, October 05, 2009


Actually, that's very far from what I am, as teacher and family man. And Facebook keeps me well in touch with a wide range of peeps. That said, I have increasingly fewer impulses of the sort that lead me to blog here, leading to an endless succession of posts about how little I'm blogging here.

Still I'm not quite prepared to retire the old Cahiers. If nothing else it archives the growth of one poet's mind over more than half-a-decade, which some readers have valued. And every now and again I am moved to communicate something without the mediation of a magazine or editor, and this blog makes that possible.

What I'm not so interested in these days are the teapot-tossing tempests that for so long were the life of this blog and poetics blogging in general. Arguments about flarf or conceptual writing or the freakin' School of Quietude just aren't doing it for me these days. Having a child clarifies time, like butter, into something rich that you don't want to waste. I still absorb ephemera, as it were thoughtlessly, but I don't have to produce it.

On my mind: how to bring my teaching life in better concord with my writing life. Last semester I found something of a modus scribendi, keeping up with my classes and grading and still having something left over for at least half-an-hour every evening. Then over the summer I had acres of time to spend and misspend. Now the shock of autumn has made it hard to find my way back to daily writing, which leaves the novel tossing and turning like a fitful sleeper trying to get back to his dream. I'm not too worried about it--there's enough momentum at this point that I feel that the story, or stories, are always there. But it nags at me all the same.

At least I'm writing poems again after a considerable hiatus—poems of a different stripe than my Ithaca diary, and wilder and more shaggy than the Severance Songs, which I'll keep tinkering with right up to the moment Tupelo finally demands the manuscript. Sent a few poems out the other day after not doing that for a long while.

Somehow to bring writing and teaching into closer accord, so that one isn't stealing from the other. To be able to bring my interests of the moment into the classroom. And I've been inspired by my students too--the especially bright and ambitious ones that clustered around my door for a while last spring were instrumental in moving me to try fiction again. They helped me recapture a little of the old ingenuousness, while still being smart as hell.

I've been sick post-birthday, and today I took down off the shelf the sort of monstrous theoretical tome that I used to read for pleasure--something I'd acquired in my Ithaca days and never opened--Geoff Waite's Nietzsche's Corps/e. Published in 1996 it feels at once like the product of another era and also completely relevant to my desire to find the doorway out of postmodernism. Badiou seemed to offer one way but I'm starting to think that he's an idealist at heart, in spite of all his talk about radical secularization. That pushes me back toward Marx, and trying to understand my own anti-Marx/bourgeois/romantic impulses. Waite has written a wide-ranging and scathing polemic on what he insists on calling Nietzsche/anism; his hyperbolic claim, quoting Georges Bataille, is that "Nietzsche's position is the only one outside of communism." It's a fervent attack on left Nietzscheanism (i.e., post-structuralism) without being reactionary, as most such attacks usually constitute themselves. Probably out of date. But it's fun to re-immerse myself in such an intellectually penetrating yet wide-ranging text, stylistically reminiscent of a more serious Zizek, and more pleasurable than Badiou by a long shot. It's also hooking me up again with my Frankfurt School-formed self after a summer dawdling in the mires of mathematics.

Also reading:

- José Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the first Saramago I've read—I've been turned off by the descriptions of books like Blindness, which made them sound schematic, but this is lush and atmospheric, a treat.

- Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax, editors, Letters to Poets. The kind of refreshment I used to go to blogs for: candid, searching, often breathtakingly smart letters between older and younger poets on how to survive and perpetuate the writing life. So far I've been particularly moved by exchanges between Brenda Coultas & Victor Hernandez Cruz, Truoung Tran & Wanda Coleman, and Jennifer Firestone & Eileen Myles. Highly recommended.

I thought there was more but there ain't. No poetry to speak of except of what I get glancingly out of Poetry (which by and large continues to be dismayingly anodyne in its actual poem choices, though the prose discussions are lively) and the latest Denver Quarterly (which has the opposite problem: an exciting house style that becomes too insistently recognizable after a while).

And so ends this latest ramble. Blogging begets blogging, but in this case it may beget more silence, exile, and cunning—the powers of concentration that I need if I'm to restore writing to its rightful place in my day.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"The boiling point of things"

Today, three years of marriage. May all who desire it find wedded bliss soon.

Six years of blogging, slowing never stopping. In difficult transition from writing to writing.

Two years in Chicago, only beginning to discover its wonders. Last weekend: the Red Moon Theater's thrilling and funny outdoor performance, "Last of My Species: The Fearless Songs of Laarna Cortaan." Playing again this weekend; if you can go, do.

Turning the page of my thirty-ninth birthday in a couple of weeks. Forty years on the planet. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita....

Nearly twenty months of Sadie Gray Corey, but it feels so much longer, an epoch. It is longer: nine months of anticipating her arrival must be incorporated into my experience of new life. Twenty-nine months. She speaks in full sentences already, her face is different every day, she's not sleeping too consistently, she delights and astonishes for her living, by her living. Thank you.

Eight months of a Democratic administration that never ceases to disappoint. "The art of the possible," "the perfect is the enemy of the good," "bipartisanship," "pragmatism." I'm sick of these words and terrified of the tea-baggers, the birthers, the truthers, the gun-toters. If they don't accept the legitimacy of the system why should we? Abolish the Senate. Abolish the Electoral College. Abolish state governments. Enhance the power of municipalities and localities. Let it change. Let it go.

Some six months since my tirade against fiction, some six months of writing it myself, wearing the itchy skin of an untested novelist, finding just minutes a day to write an ever-ramifying and baroque story incorporating elements of detective fiction, Jim
Jarmusch movies, grad school bull sessions, Holocaust drama, unrequited love, tourism, soap opera, romance, Romance. How long can this go on? It goes on.

An eternity of waiting for things to settle down, moments realizing they never will, gratitude for this.

Books finished and unfinished over weeks and months: Badiou, Laird Hunt, Adam Sisman on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lance Olsen, Lynne Tillman, Jacques Roubaud (poetry and fiction), Claire Messud's deadpan 9/11 novel The Emperor's Children, Richard's terrifying Tracer, The Book of Disquietude and Pessoa & Co.. Poems encountered and re-encountered via teaching, so far: Whitman's Song of Myself and "This Compost," Dickinson's "Tell all the truth" and "A narrow Fellow," Mallarmé's "Coup de des," Hopkins' "God's Grandeur," Stein's "Picasso" and Ponge's "L'orange," Gary Snyder's "Smokey the Bear Sutra" and Archy the cockroach's "what the ants are saying." Roubaud, from Exchanges on Light: "Light is the boiling point of things."

Redmoon's lesson: every mask has at least two faces, and the dance of death is still a dance.

So hello, autumn.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Had a fine time last Friday playing the part of poet-in-residence on the University of Illinois-Chicago's terrifyingly brutalist campus. Met with some students to discuss their work (and they are a sharp bunch), then did a reading that evening in which I read two things for the first time: a few of the poems from my June verse diary that I posted here, and a couple of pages of the novel-in-progress.

I joked after the reading that the novel represented my betrayal of poetry, but that's actually far from the truth. What it really has brought about is my semi-abandonment of this blog. What with teaching and family responsibilities, not to mention occasional other gigs like this one, I find that my spare writing energy goes into propelling myself into the imaginative universe of my characters and the constellations of words and scenes that they inhabit.

To get back to blogging--not that anyone's necessarily been holding their breath--means integrating that writing into blogging's dailiness, as my poetic and scholarly practice was once so integrated. But so far I've felt the need for at least a thin veil of privacy around my fiction writing. Perhaps as I begin to expose pieces of it to readers (or listeners), I'll be able to bring some of my process here.

I'll be back on the UIC campus again this Friday for a colloquium talk I'm calling "Unknown Knowns, or Poetry Traverses the Real," in which I distill my summer takeaway from reading Badiou and other sages. It will be at 3 pm in the Hull House Museum if you're nearby and interested.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


I shake myself awake from end-of-summer slumbers to offer some heads-up about this and about that that.

THIS: I'm pleased to say that I will be writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the first two weeks of September. I'll be giving a reading open to the public on Friday, September 4 at 6 PM at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, which strikes me as a particularly auspicious site for a reading. Do come.

THAT: I'm spreading the word about a call for papers for another poetry conference sponsored by Université Libre de Bruxelles. I had a fabulous time at the Poetic Ecologies conference and this promises to be excellent as well. And yes, the beer in Belgium is just as excellent as you've heard.

‘Tools of the Sacred, Techniques of the Secular:
Awakening, Epiphany, Apocalypse and Doubt in
Contemporary English-Language Verse’

Université Libre de Bruxelles

First Call for Papers

(Brussels, 4 to 7 May 2010)

This international four-day conference to be held in Europe’s capital city wishes to explore the multiple and changing forms of engagement with the sacred and reverence of the secular in English-language verse of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In its cross-boundary coverage of contemporary verse in English reworking or denying dimensions of the ‘sacred,’ the conference will not privilege any Anglophone poetic tradition in particular. Instead, it invites papers exploring contemporary poetic voices from all areas of the English-speaking world, from North America and Europe to Asia and Australasia.

Although the Conference does not exclusively focus on ecocritical concerns, the programme will include several sessions devoted to the topic of ‘Eco-spirit’ and ‘ecopieties’ in contemporary verse in English. The First Call for Papers closes on 31 August 2009. The Second (and final) Call for Papers will close on 15 October 2009.

For further information and a full descriptive of the Conference objectives, please contact Dr. Franca BELLARSI at

Monday, August 03, 2009

Notes on a Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago's New Modern Wing

Astonished by energy and romanticism and above all the color in the Cy
Twombly exhibit. Revising my notions of "late work."

Abstract gardens and landscapes with gestural inscriptions (often the date or the town in Italy, Gaeta, where Twombly spends much of his time) very moving.

Wooden sculpture: base is an old case of Johnny Walker with the Walker logo upside-down: two wooden blades like oars upthrust from white plaster box. Compressed image of the Odyssey, to my mind: the sailor walking inland to where the sea is unknown.

Mysterious simultaneity of formal restraint and baroqur excess in these paintings. Streaks of paint the dominant motif: inscriptions of verticality, gravity, time. So often the ghost of letterforms, spermatazoa, calligraphy.

Huge horizontal canvas of white peony blotches and dark green streaked stems on a light green background with haiku over each flower in quavery script. I like "From the heart / of the peony / a summer / bee". After the coolness of that painting the red and yellow peonies on the next wall are a shock, blazing out with exuberant vulgarity: ketchup and mustard, horrorshow streaks of blood. One particular haiku is featured on all three peony paintings displayed here, by Takarai Kikaku: "AH! The Peonies / For which / Kusonoki / Took off his Armour". The curator's note points out the diminished inserted first "R" in the last word so as to pun on "amour."

Most suggestive for me the paintings from the last series on display, "III Notes from Salalah," which feature white scriptlike "pseudo-writing" (Twombly's word) over dark green backgrounds, blackboard like save for the omnipresent streaking of the white paint. One really seems to lead off with the French "le." Dazzled by the sheer scale of paintings produced by a man in his late seventies and early eighties.

Now Gerhard Richter. I will never cease my simpleminded amazement at visual artists' ability to think through/in elementary forms and gestures: verticality, horizontality, mass, line. Add color to the mix and the emotional temperature rises. Add representation and the mix perpetually threatens to thicken into the para-visual, but wavers back again into form. Memorable paintings oscillate and hum with the viewer's mental activity, spurred from pure form to applied and back again.

A lot of people take photographs, though this is not allowed. Most don't bother to disable the little "click" their digital cameras are programmed to emit. Do they just not know? Whenever I try to snap a pic I get caught: if I didn't know it wasn't allowed I'd probably get away with it more.

The same thing always happens to me in musuems: I begin alive with curiosity and come to focus intently on the work of one, two, perhaps three artists. Then my energy flags, I start to think about lunch, and the artworks blur into sensation, which means cooler and more conceptual works lose my attention and the hottest works--because of
their color or eroticism or intensity of subject matter--seize it for a moment before lassitude again descends.

A de Chirico I'd not seen before: "The Eventuality of Destiny," a 1927 oil that references the Three Graces (and/or Picasso's Desmoiselles) in which various parts of three nude women's bodies appear in diffferent styles and on different picture planes. Not used to seeing him depict the figure, as opposed to the enigmatic cityscapes he's
famous for. Iconic. One woman's head, in profile, nearly black and white (the rest of the painting is alive with color) looks like the head on a Roman coin: it compresses in itself the lonely feeling his other paintings radiate.

The familiarity of Chagall's "White Crucifixion" protects me until I notice the despairing mother trying to shelter her child at the bottom of the canvas. Tears.

And then to turn aside and behold the Chicago skyline through a scrim, with the silver curls of the Pritzker Pavilion like a shiny birthday present.

There is a weight and gravity to the European artworks, even the most playful, antihetical to the antic spirit of even the most monumental American art on the floor below.

The piercing perfectly circular red hole at the center of Magritte's "The Banquet" (1958). Impossible domestication of the irruptive Real.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Credo of the Difficult Imagination

"Whatever we may think of when we use that word [accessible], texts in general should be just the opposite. They should be less accessible, not more. Why? Because texts that make us work, texts that make us think and feel in unusual ways, texts that attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming, are more valuable epistemologically, ontologically, and sociopolitically than texts that make us feel warm, fuzzy, and forgetful.

"When I speak of renewing the writing of the Difficult Imagination, I am referring to the renewal of a narratological possibility space in which we are asked continuously to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are. This interzone of impeded accessibility is an essential one for human freedom. In it, everything can and should be considered, attempted, troubled. What is important about its products is not whether they ultimately succeed or fail (whatever we may mean when we say those words). What is important is that they come into being often and widely, because in them we discover the perpetual manifestation of Nietzsche's notion of the unconditional, Derrida's of a privileged instability, Viktor Shklovsky's ambition for art, and Martin Heidegger's for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and contemplation."

—Lance Olsen, Anxious Pleasures

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


On my most recent trip to Las Vegas. On midsummer's evanescent reach. On delight in my daughter that amplifies daily.

Living in prose if not quite for it. Wrote my first poem since the Ammons verse diary in our room on the twenty-second floor of the Bellagio thinking, as that town inclines me to do, about pleasure and the apocalypse. Vegas as sinking ship, Titanic, flocked to by the thousands who won't admit the party's over. Pleasures of the apocalypse. The poem is called "The Millions" (upper limit of thinkable quantities) and I think I'll write some more.

Looking for innovative fiction. Recommended to me: Lance Olsen, Shelley Jackson, Steve Tomasula. On my own I've found Lynne Tillman and Laird Hunt. More?

As far as the Oulipians go, I'm still midway through Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London and have been meaning to pick up Perec's Life: A User's Manual. Will save A Void for the next void.

When I began with poetry I thought of it as a tool for discovering striking images. I didn't think about music, I just did it. And when I began with fiction (reading fiction) of course like everyone else I wanted to be taken away. The image was secondary to narrative, and music barely registered as a consideration.

Now when I write poetry I want to write what I think of as most fully proper to poetry, what it alone can accomplish. The effects, and poetic cognition, made possible primarily by putting pressure on syntax, appeal strongly to me. White space, line breaks, meter: the devices that shift and transform emphasis, that make an other(-ed)(-ing) syntax possible: for me that's what poetry is for.

But this is my Platonic ideal of poetry. My actual poems are fallen things, trapped in the slow-moving amber of a residual romanticism, and as such they often turn on images and micro-narrative (bits of local narrative that can function in the way proper to a poem, that is, as syntax) and macro-narrative (the transcendent electrical arc from the world I write about to the void variously filled by God, nature, capital, Spirit, the proletariat, history, etc., etc.).

If I feel a compulsion now toward fiction it may depend on a rebellion against my own powerful sense of decorum, expressed above as the sense of art's needing to focus on the territory proper to it. What's proper to the novel is heteroglossia and the mixing of genres: there is no form of textuality alien to it. I still remember the shock of pleasure from first reading Ulysses and discovering the Nighttown playscript and the newsroom headlines and the syntaxe féminine of Molly Bloom. And the songs, of course, which I was already accustomed to thanks to Tolkien.

Plus I may as well admit rediscovering the sheer pleasures of storytelling. I create a character and he or she begins to talk, or I talk about him or her, and a world unfurls. It's no different than a poem in that sense except that the characters exist together in a different way than poems do (but I remember Jack Spicer's claim that "poems cannot live alone any more than we can," his argument for writing in terms of books rather than individual lyrics, one-night stands). I think Bakhtin was essentially right when he argued that the poem is monoglossic and tends toward purity. You can do a lot of interesting things poetically by trying to subvert that—by insisting on a heteroglossic lyric, for instance—but in novel-writing I feel there's less resistance and one can just go.

I want to write the novel only a poet could write.

I want to transgress my sense of decorum through radical fidelity to it.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Return to Prose

The verse diary experiment is over, for now. I intended to write every day that I was in Ithaca, and I more or less succeeded. The diary did not quite coincide with the entire month of June because the last two days were devoted to travel: those days then, by definition, are in excess of, are binding upon, the project as an Ithaca project.

It is interesting and unsurprising, or perhaps surprising but uninteresting, that overall readership was down while I was posting only verse. I am not unsympathetic: I have trouble reading poetry on the Web, especially the kind of poetry I was doing (uninterrupted verse blocks in rough tetrameter that require the reader to scroll downward seemingly interminably). Web poems are optimally viewed complete on a single screen. To my knowledge an intuitive technology replicating that crucial bit of kinetic-sensory information provided by the paper book or magazine—the fingertips' knowledge of how much longer a poem or section or chapter or book is—has yet to be discovered.

As far as the novel goes (I spoke of it in verse, but to speak of it here in prose feels finally and ultimately disclosive) I seem to have entered a new phase in its composition. The first 50,000 words were written on my computer, but for the past week I've been writing in longhand in a notebook. The sensory pleasure of this is muted but persistent. I recently switched notebooks, as well: the roughly 4 x 8 Moleskine with ruled pages that I've been slowly filling for the past two years (since well before Sadie was born) has been replaced with a much larger and thinner notebook, also a Moleskine, without lines, so that to open it up is to behold a vast clean field (but not too clean: the paper is less white than the old notebook, it has a buff sort of tone that provides a bit of pleasing resistance or texture for the eye to catch hold of). Writing without lines, on broad pages, with a black fine point Pilot roller ball pen, I feel the prose moving ineffably toward the condition of poetry, not so much in its content (for there are still characters, actions, voices, and all the other trappings of narrative) but in process, its dreamlike unfolding, one word or sentence suggesting the next.

Intoxicated mornings like this morning, sitting in mixed sunshine outside the Bros. K coffeehouse, my hand swimming across and down the page, a nearly pure experience. Just to write, to go on writing, is enough. The project, the product, seems incidental to that experience.

When I can't write any more I read Badiou (or, strictly speaking, about Badiou: I had to retreat from Being and Event to Peter Hallward's introduction, Badiou: A Subject to Truth. But I've ordered two books I'm told I'll find more congenial to my purposes: The Century and Handbook of Inasethetics). Through the fantasia of mathematics as ontology he promises to deliver us from postmodernism and theory and endless heuristics toward Truth. I am skeptical but compelled. The chapter on Badiou's aesthetics (or inaesthetics) is very suggestive, and I've been musing over the polarity he sets up between Mallarmé (the poet of pure subtraction, whose objects become pure language and form, and whose subject, the speaker, disappears) and Rimbaud or more intriguingly Pessoa (the poet of substitution [I am tempted in Pessoa's case to say multiplication]), who proliferates objects but subjects them to a rigorous syntax (such as, I think, procedural poetry, Oulipian games) and of course multiplies and so disperses the subject (Je est en autre, or Senhores Caeiro, Reis and de Campos).

It is tempting to analogize or homologize this polarity to the conceptualism/baroque (flarf) polarity set up by Rob Fitterman and Vanessa Place in Notes on Conceptualisms. The goal of both poetics, as articulated by Place-Fitterman, is the defeat of mastery, which I take to be very similar to Badiou's desire to defeat the count-as-one. "Subtracted from all habitual familiarity, a poem leaves everyone equally confounded. Without concern for the conventional requirement of language users, poetry affirms the pure 'sovereignty of language' [Petit manuel d'inésthétique 161]" (Hallward 198). This is not a new idea—it is fundamentally a Mallarméan idea. And I see a direct line from the "pure 'sovereignty of language'" of Mallarmé to the austerities of conceptual writing, in which the object is diminished in the name of the word, and the word-object is diminished in the name of the concept. But I'm more interested, and more temperamentally suited (as a writer, though perhaps not as a thinker), to the possibilities of the baroque, and what seems to be Badiou's way of thinking about the possibilities of substitution and the plural as means of pushing the poem toward its necessary and heroic failures (its escapes, its lines of flight from conventional, prepackaged, commodified experience). This also veers a bit from Badiou's emphasis on purity, which I find, quite frankly, to be creepy.

The summer will go very fast, but it is necessary to me to treat at least the next several weeks—before August—as though I had all the time in the world.

Monday, July 06, 2009


No view: full dark: so this
is goodbye, Ithaca, a month
made shorter in retrospect
in the killing of visible time
in the watches of the night
and the gone-by reckoned up
in pictures taken on camera phones
but mostly in the words—between me and Emily,
between me and you, and the books
I’ve read or managed to dip into:
Ammiel Alcalay, A.R. Ammons,
Badiou, Bernadette Mayer,
Codrescu, Andre,
Donna Stonecipher,
Fanny Howe, Allen
Grossman (chose not to review),
Jacques Roubaud, Juliana Spahr,
Lynne Tillman, Jonathan
Monroe, Fitterman &
Place, Jacques
Roubaud, Monique
Truong (all of three pages), one
month’s constellation to color
my memory of an inward time
in a place that demands little formal attention
except perhaps to the weather, which careful
readers will have noted to be unseasonably
cool and rainy with only the last couple
of days at all summerlike: rain
this evening, but hot and bright this morning
so that the three of could sit
at the flat rocky knees of Cascadilla Falls
and put our feet in the water: indescribable material
happiness of watching Sadie at first
in doubt, bending her knees
to keep out of cold water, then touching
with fingers, then sitting in only a shirt
at the water’s edge dangling both feet
with a grin reflecting the sunlight
in lemon slivers on the surface of
live water. Meantime the world
wobbles on: tense quiet in Iran, we
may not know for years what to do
with the pictures we’ve seen and words
we’ve read, yet I feel sure that someday
that regime will fall and however long that takes
they’ll look back on June 2009 and say
the revolution started here: we are called
to revolution again and again, to fulfill
what may have been empty or cynical promises,
to take words literally that if taken as words
do nothing to hold back a sea of troubles:
in short, be the sea, be part of your time
and if impoverished be impoverished
with it: rich or poor, like Croesus unable
to know if you’re lucky until after
you’re dead: rich as Croesus I’ll rise
tomorrow with my little family and get into
the car, stop for one last cup of really
excellent coffee, and drive to Cleveland:
an old friend, Sarah Gridley, visionary
poet, awaits us there, and the next day
will take us home, set us down
on the fringes of an enormous local history
that we’ll try to be a part of, suffer
and grow, don’t take it too big, don’t
expect to be small. The only weather
is Sadie’s sound machine plus the whizz
of a fan, but let me try before sleep
to interpret the dark: dim window
through leaves at an angle down the street
to accompany night air soft with car sounds
moist as breath but cool, even,
and the faintest sense, brought by that window
of movement out there, motion made coherent
by its invisibility, and now as I lean forward
a streetlamp slides its light down powerlines
into the cloudlike bank of a leaf cluster
each leaf with a surface one visible one
invisible, neither more real than the other
or less. Night’s calling. Farewell
to an idea of myself as out of time
and out of place: I’m ready, brink
of leaving, to be here.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Some days go
by, fleet by and

Thursday, July 02, 2009


In the margins of Sadie’s nap
on a humid day with some sun
raising the ante after thunderstorms
this morning and to judge from the cloud
cover in the northwest we may not be out
of the woods yet (yes, this be the verse
supple enough for cliches, as it encompasses
dailiness on the level of toenail clippings
and the umbrella I forgot, then recovered
from the bagel place this morning—not
to mention world events that I have as small
a chance of hammering to the scaffold
of words as I do the ephemeral and all else
of a nature to be missed, lived). More time
in the archives today in strange intimacy
with the dead, Ammons, A.R., his papers
neatly ordered in boxes and folders such
as only the most neurotic person organizes
in life: reading letters, unpublished prose
autobiographies written on yellow
pads, and—but the baby’s awake, I’ll
resume without break here but impalpable
hours shall pass in the meantime:
well! the weather has made a complete
cycle: we went for a walk under
lowering skies with thunder trundling overhead
and made it home just in time to watch the rain
from the porch rather than get drenched:
cats and dogs (uh-huh) and strong winds
took precedence but as the afternoon wore
into evening the clouds broke up
and now with Sadie down for the night
sunlight is spreading long wings
over the back porch and the roofs
of my neighbors to the immediate east:
also had dinner already with my daughter
(we both had spaghetti but I wasn’t the one
who rubbed it all over my mouth and
cheeks) and in a bit Brad will be over,
the mathematician-cum-Blake scholar
and we’ll talk about our work and drink
beers: it’s a good life in the present
tense though you’ll notice I’m actually
either living in the immediate past or else
anticipating: so it goes, we’ve already seen
what happens if I describe each line
by line, though I will mention a steady dripping
somewhere to my left, residue of rainwater
that very occasionally syncopates itself
with a double drop, so if that particular branch
or eave isn’t living in the past, what is:
what I’ve come to like about this kind of writing
is the forward progression or I should say digression:
it’s not exactly narrative but writing every day
enforces a certain order while permitting a certain
freedom to predominate: the illusion
that anything can and will go into the poem:
very different from my novel in which plot
to my surprise is suddenly strongly
asserting itself: that’s fine but let it be
just one piece of the puzzle, not a master
that claims language for its slave: I want
as I’ve said elsewhere always to be writing poetry
by which I don’t mean poetry but that freedom
that discovers its law. Play with paradoxes means
it’s time for another natural observation
but I can’t identify the birdsong only register
that it’s binaural, play for each of my ears
short chirps on the one side long pitches
on the other and the summer evening
just goes on, persists in making felt
the internal tensions of its name.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Sometimes it’s as if a little
of the universal chaos or chora,
force of making and unmaking, makes
itself felt locally: I’m talking
about the thunderstorm that ripped through
the area a couple of hours ago
while we were at Erica and Joey’s place
out in Newfield, splitting trees
and raining whole branches down on the roads
and lawns. And the mischief
goes further than that, reaching out
with malevolent hand
to touch a pair of icons: Farrah
Fawcett’s gone as of this morning
and I just looked on the Times website
and Michael Jackson, the so-called
King of Pop, has died in Los Angeles
at age 50 from unknown causes (read:
his whole sad twisted and talented
life did him in). Which is stranger:
I’m just a little too old to have imprinted sexually
on Farrah’s red swimsuit poster and missed
for the most part the original Charlie’s Angels
so all I know of her is an iconicity
that outlasted her career and will likely
outlast her. MJ on the other hand
has always been there, his big little voice
ringing out ABC 123 when I was a kid
(I remember the Jackson 5 cartoon)
never listened much to Off the Wall but
one of the first CDs my family owned
alongside a Men at Work and a Donald
Fagen was Thriller, which I listened to
over and over on the brink of puberty
till I became convinced for a while that
real musicians played guitars whereas Michael
only had his voice and whippet body
so I pushed away from that music and missed out
for too long on the greatness of Prince
taking him for MJ redux: all moot now,
like that face consumed by its white noselessness
a fate worse than Elvis
has cast a pall on the innocent day.
Not so innocent: the clerics in Iran
tighten their grip so that I remember
that Bulgarian girl from Casablanca
telling Rick “the devil has the people
by the throat.” My day’s only prosaic
down deep in Kroch Library with Ammons’
papers, reading letters people wrote
to him and looking at the typescript drafts
for The Snow Poems and Glare:
he did very little revision
on the tape poems, which have no margins at all
and sometimes lose parts of letters
to the black roll of the typewriter
whereas The Snow Poems are heavily inscribed
with handwritten marginalia some of which
made it into the final book. It
was poorly reviewed and represents
for Ammons perhaps a road not further taken
into linguistic experiment: what I take away
from it and from the drafts and some
of the other writings is a real sense
of his loneliness: it’s as if
he wagered all he had on poetry, like a
Rimbaud who never quit, and
the results, for his life at least, disappoint:
he lets a lot hang out in The
Snow Poems, obsessive chat
about cunnilingus and cornholing,
his lack of need for neighbors, most
of all his ability to stare at snow, a tolerance
for the void in which he felt certain
freedoms for which he willingly paid
everything. I seem to need something
to look at even if it’s just a few a trees
and bushes, the simple palette
of this window: green, reddish black, white
side of a house, sky mixing
blue and white as in a paintcan.
Sadie resplendent in two different dresses
one for the morning, one for the afternoon
but what illuminates my heart is her face
that seems to float and bobble on that
fast-growing body, all legs and little belly:
the eyes making a slow but permanent transition
from blue to hazel, eyes that seem to see more
for all her necessarily diminished understanding.
This poem most of all is for her,
that center that hurtles me away.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Breeze from the sun on Ho
Plaza high above Ithaca on the Cornell
campus: I think eastward ho:
there’s something vaguely Maoist
about that name, a gathering place
hardly revolutionary, a concrete
climb past chapel and student center
to the two big libraries
and beyond them the Arts and Sciences
quad: strangely unstrange
to be back here where I was a student
for the last time—now I’m a prof
(E. Bishop: you are one of them) and life
has moved more or less smoothly
along a gentle arc whose fierceness
is mine to discover probably too late
the first time my back goes out or
my daughter screams she hates me
or I come to feel, as now I could never feel,
that I’ve read all the books. Youth
yet obtains perched here on a rock wall
watching people in their early to mid twenties
pass by on the way to summer classes
or to study or otherwise to maintain fidelity
to some idea of themselves as exceptional
in this little city on a hill
above the other little city
in the raked declivities of these lakes
where the collective gravity seems to flow
ineluctably southeast toward the Hudson
and New York, where history or at least fashion
work hard at being visible. Birds
call to each other and whole branches
of trees disclose a sense of idyllic
height, above earthly concerns and yet
so clearly of the earth, the worked harmony
of ivy and stone, lawns left a little ragged,
clear isolate shadows cast by a sun
that makes itself scarce in the winter months
when the real grind happens and the mental
and actual bodies pause
before hurling or not hurling themselves over bridges
into the famous gorges. A few days
remain, we won’t quite outlast the month
before packing into the car
and returning to Chicago. What
will I miss but this moment
if I go on thinking about moments
to come, split from the seeming unity
of being and typing without looking
so I can see how still the Victorian
lamppost there is against the motile
background of shrubbery: BAM
the chime just sounded from the clock tower
to my right: it’s suffocatingly loud, always
vexed me as a student how a supposed shrine
to learning insists on disrupting your concentration
with hellish peals on the quarter-hour
and that’s not even to mention
the childish songs played childishly every day
which go on for endless minutes, one
off key note at a time:
“Here Comes the Sun” and the alma mater
busting open your book of theory
till there’s nothing left to do
but start the long downhill home.
In a bit I’ll disappear into the archives
to get a taste of Archie’s materialism:
they’ve got the tape for the turn of the year
down there and innumerable other documents
typed and handwritten and crisping
under the effects of oxygen in spite
of the archivists’ efforts: I’ll behold
one of the last generations
to leave an authentic paper trail: if
someone ever wants to study my work
they’ll have to somehow simulate conditions
of digitality no doubt more ephemeral
than the letters and manuscripts that await me:
I envision powerful simulators
of different decades in digital evolution
to render environments of information
as they appeared to the ancients, us.
Will the sky I feel above me
or the view I know’s behind that tower
of the lake be any more durable?
Both feet falling asleep
and the morning has passed me by.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Sunset: red eye peering
through the maple branches that blinks
and winks with the subtle movements
of my own eyes, the air weighing
on the leaves. Another shining morning
spent with Sadie walking up and down
the streets of Fall Creek, marred only
by intense allergies that made my eyes
itch and my nose drip. They itch, drip
still. Lunch at Chilis, of all places—it’s
the secret getaway of Jonathan Monroe,
comp lit prof and prose poet, author of
the just released Demosthenes’ Legacy
from Ahadada Books in Canada: his first
book of poems, he’s pleased as punch.
(Or is that Punch, as in Punch and
Judy? My mother’s name was Judy
but if anyone had a punch in that house,
it was her. End of digression.) We
talked about teaching, Cornell’s
financial troubles, and such: it’s
strange to see how completely we’ve shifted
out from the mentor-mentee relationship
into something like simple friendship
and respect. Still shocked
at times to discover myself a grown-up
with gray hairs sneaking in like silver
tendrils. Up to campus afterward
to spend a fortuitous gift card
at the bookstore I received
for purchasing ten books during my time there:
a new book of poems by Roubaud, Exchanges
on Light, translated by Eleni
Sikelianos; a novel I’ve long wanted to read,
especially because my own is partly set
in Trieste, Zeno’s Conscience; and a vade
mecum to swim in and object to, James
Wood’s How Fiction Works. Isn’t he
a Brit after all, isn’t he going fundamentally
to have a conservative if not theologically
possessive take on a genre his countrymen
pretend they invented (c.f. Cervantes,
fella): still I glanced into it and fell
a bit in love with his prose and
his own honesty about his two favorite critics,
Jakobson and Barthes, whose work cuts
entirely against his own grain as he joyfully
admits: so I can do him the same favor
and maybe learn something. But when
I’m going to read all that when I’m
still slogging through The Great Fire
of London and half-a-dozen other books,
plus my review of The Cosmopolitan,
and only a few days left to dig
whatever I can of Ammons on Ammons’
own turf, I just don’t know. A little
time’s left to me tonight before sleep:
for a change I already did my half-
an-hour’s labor on the novel instead of
procrastinating it like usual: it’s
such a pleasure to write and yet every day
feels like raw beginning with all the pain
of breaking new: speaking of beginnings
I was charmed by Susan Stewart’s lecture
which touched on the question of beginning
and on the relationship of creation
to the two freedoms, negative (freedom from)
and positive (freedom to): making
the point that so often when we create
we begin with negation: if we aren’t captured whole
by some tradition we look at tradition
and say that’s not what I shall do
and like Hegel’s slave we empty ourselves out
laboring in someone else’s rebellious vineyard:
positive freedom from the artist is easily mistaken
for ignorance, as in the case of certain students
who say they don’t want to read other poets
for fear of being influenced: they’re dumb
like foxes crazy to preserve
their sense of liberty, so they’re not wrong
but what’s right is to know, to lose your innocence
of what’s come before in art and what’s expected
and yet somehow to begin anywhere as Stewart said
so that the new must be a wager, an act
of faith based on imperfect information, or rather
on the setting aside of such information,
not the same as rejecting information and wallowing
in ignorance. I think Badiou
would agree, but I didn’t ask her
about it: the Q&A was dragging on
and I had to get home to give a bath to my little girl
and sit on the bed with her and Emily
and sing about the mighty jungle
and be here alone now while Emily’s out with a friend
having made spaghetti for dinner having written
what I need to write to feel free
to read or stare out the window or even
to be. Write some more.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


A pink cloud lent dignity by purple shadows
rises serenely behind the red maple, turned black,
that I can see from this window, and that maple
I now realize has a brother: two fine wine-
colored trees that dignify the facade
of the crumpled white firetrap of a house
they stand in front of. Spent the morning
with Sadie, trundling down the hill after breakfast
to get me a coffee and her some time
in the park, getting the cuffs and butt
of her pants wet with yesterday’s rain:
then to visit my old employer, Buffalo
Street Books née Bookery II, where Sadie
was hoping to see Gary’s old white Lab Harry
but Harry, it seems, though ever docile
and sleepy to my remembrance has
a record of snapping at smaller dogs
and so he’s been banned from the store and needs
a new home: anyone in the area who can love
a generous old dog with some quirks
can call the store and ask about it
during business hours. Sadie had herself a poop
so I changed her diaper and then we looked in
at Pastimes the antique store/junk shop
where she was properly ravished by a box of seashells
and an even bigger box of buttons of all descriptions:
blue plastic, brass, pewter, black with rhinestones:
the physical world is more than enough for her
and me too while I’m with her, all that appears
seems to withhold nothing of being
worth grasping, and yet there are basic things
available only to reason, like the sun
as source of all light, not just the light in the sky
but the light from fossil fuels and from wood burning
and of course the eye itself as Ronald Johnson
so beautifully puts it in BEAM 4 of ARK “may
be said to be the sun in other form”:
Sadie just looks, standing in DeWitt Park
as the tree shadows appear and disappear
as the sun makes itself felt and fades again
behind slowly dispersing cloud cover
and she says simply Sun, Sun. So the sun
I see insists on present tense, but it was later
that we got a truly beautiful day going
with high fleets of clouds parading without interrupting
the strong light that warmed everything
and made a kind of invisible steam come up
that made me want to change into shorts, which I did.
Home for lunch and a good bit of tickling
(not too soon after eating) before it was time
for a nap for both of us: funny how kids show they’re tired
by manifesting more energy than ever, like the sun
will at the moment it exhausts its hydrogen fuel
and expand into a red giant that obliterates
everything we’ve thought possible up to now
except for a few science fiction writers, hack
conservators of ultimate hope beyond theology:
Sadie doesn’t explode but she does become uncontainable
by anything except sleep, which comes swiftly
after reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar
and being laid down in the crib with the sound machine going:
me by contrast being what’s called a grown-up
moving slower and more heavily as I run out of gas
and yet when I’m horizontal with eyes closed
that’s when my own giant comes to visit
and thoughts big or just persistent
fend sleep off for a while: but I got a few Zs
and some time in the afternoon to read
a book I’m reviewing that I like quite a bit,
Donna Stonecipher’s The Cosmopolitan:
won’t do that here but I’d love to review her name
which seems made up practically and I’ve even
appropriated it for my D&D character: practically
synonymous with lithograph, but with a secret
grafted, and the all-American Donna in front
is just too much: plus her bio says she grew up
“in Seattle and Teheran,” so talk about
cosmopolitan: does she have friends in Teheran
where today there was an enforced calm
that’s likely to bust wide open later in the week:
they’re carrying photos of murdered Neda
where they can and dodging Basiji (sounds
just like the English besieger)
but the regular cops are hesitant and even the
Revolutionary Guard seems split in spite of threats:
I’ll keep watching and hoping from my helpless
distance. Just got an e-mail from Roger
telling me Susan Stewart’s scheduled to speak
tomorrow: I’ll check that out: as a poet-scholar
she interests me though her verse
is a bit too laboriously beautifu:
the lecture’s called “The Freedom of the Poet”
which is the title of a book of John Berryman’s
essays: I certainly like the idea of my freedom
like my freedom to write or to not write
which is the freedom to not be a poet and
the freedom to be confusingly intermixed:
maybe she can clarify that for me
and it will be interesting too to be a student again
however briefly in good old Goldwin Smith.
Also having lunch with Jonathan
Monroe tomorrow, the most rigorous
of my old poetry profs and a prose poet to boot:
we have a long chat maybe once a year
and it always gives me something to think about
that subtly or even drastically
realigns the place I give to poetry and its opposites.
What those are I’ll leave for you
to imagine: it’s getting dark and there’s still a novel
to tap at and my wife I’d like to talk to
before the red sun grows
and sleep arrests us at last.

Friday, June 26, 2009


for Neda

“I will
participate in the demonstrations
tomorrow. Maybe they
will turn violent. Maybe I will be one
of the people who
is going
to get killed. I’m listening
to all my favorite music. I even
want to dance to a few songs. I
always wanted to have very narrow
eyebrows. Yes, maybe
I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow!
There are a few great movie scenes
that I also have to see. I should
drop by the library, too. It’s worth to read
the poems of Forough and Shamloo
again. All family pictures
have to be reviewed, too. I have
to call my friends as well
to say goodbye.
All I have are two bookshelves
which I told my family who should
receive them. I’m two units away
from getting my bachelors degree
but who cares about that. My mind
is very chaotic. I wrote
these random sentences
the next generation
so they know
we were not just emotional
and under peer pressure. So they know
that we did everything we could
to create a better future for them.
So they know that our ancestors surrendered
to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender
to despotism. This note
is dedicated
to tomorrow’s children.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Rain today, from morning’s drizzle
to downpour on the tin roof over the stalls
at the farmers market to mist and damp
all afternoon long to the steady trickle
I see now out the downstairs living
room window. Kids are asleep
while Emily and her friends Jen and
Rachel go out to dinner, try
to reconnect across time, space:
friends from her New York City days,
when I didn’t know her, when I scarcely
knew myself: those fog-sopped years, the
Nineties—can barely resist the urge
to quote Auden on the Thirties, let
it go, low in the sense of ignoble for sure
and innocent in that word’s darkest sense
of willful blindness to what’s real.
Bad day in Tehran, with security forces
in huge numbers preventing protestors
from massing, yet all those ordinary people
are still afire, a green fire
that just might yet consume
an unjust regime: here’s hoping
and here’s to the e-mail
of one brave young woman that
I read this morning
who was preparing for today, possibly
the last day of her life, by
watching scenes from favorite movies
and reading Persian poetry: how young
she must be and I hope still is
but they’re shooting people now:
I saw a photo of another young woman in her chador
bleeding to death on the street: what
does it mean to give your life
for what you believe: Badiou
might say at that moment, not the moment of death
but of decision, you are a person for the first time
in the fullest and only truthful sense:
in politics art science and love
for Badiou those are the conditions of truth
and the only realms in which the novum
can happen: well, French philosophers
like to say things like that but it’s compelling
all the same to sit for a while
with a rigorous schema
that proposes access to the real
via thought and form: in that sense
my rediscovery here of content
is untimely: I should go back
to language happening for its own sake
and pursue the naked forms
through which contact is made (contact!
wrote Thoreau: what are we? Where are we?)
with something appearances no matter how beautiful
only serve to conceal. I don’t understand
yet what this has to do with Ammons
or the set theory I’m painfully teaching myself
but I’m starting to glimpse sublimities
like those of the power set: take a set
of anything, prime numbers say
and then propose the power set, which includes
all possible subsets of the main set S
and therefore is necessarily larger than S
though as you’ve perhaps noticed, S,
the set of all prime numbers, is infinite: that’s
how we end up pluralizing infinity
and can say with confidence and wonder
that one infinity, called S, can be larger than
another: p(S). No doubt I’m learning just
enough to make a fool of myself, but
I’m still stunned by the elegance
of what I think I understand: I think
for example that there’s a set, call it W
that includes everything in the world
that we humans call the world (nations,
bees, sex, ideologies, cockroaches,
elms and birches and snow and vacancy): what
would the power set of W be then
if not the earth itself, ultimate horizon
of any human order or disorder
and of the rocks and animals and plants too:
so E = p(W) and adds unthought combinations
to already infinite possibilities
of life larger than life as it’s lived.
The theme is creative and has vista,
as Whitman said. So I’ll plunge ahead:
a tripper, an asker, searching unsolvable X
and when I find that X and make it my own
some new thing may arise. The
green tree at night makes a negative
image of itself against the enameling
sky, and my room that was a place to look from
becomes a theater for the passerby.

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