Saturday, January 01, 2011

Black Mountain Days

The former Studies Building. Photo taken December 30, 2010.

Happy New Year. Back from a week in the environs of Asheville, North Carolina, where we enjoyed a family vacation commune-style with two other families. When not playing with the kids (five of 'em, ranging in age from a few months to seven), I immersed myself in Black Mountain College lore, visiting the tiny storefront museum in downtown Asheville, reading memoirs by Fielding Dawson and Michael Rumaker, and, on the last day, visiting the site of the college, now a summer camp for boys.

Black Mountain College has loomed large in my imagination since I first learned of it when discovering the perplexing and generative tangle that is the work and life of Charles Olson. Like so many American experiments in utopian community, it combined high idealism with wild impracticality; the students and faculty there tried to combine living off the land with the life of the mind, but the latter usually won, so that the place seemed to be perpetually and continually falling apart practically from the moment of its founding by radical educator John Andrew Rice in 1933 to its ignominious unraveling in 1956. There's an affecting anecdote about the days of the college's decline, according to which a wealthy benefactor was supposed to signal whether or not he was going to save the college by sending an airplane over the campus; students and faculty supposedly stood in the fields for days, waiting. Whether or not the story is true, it exactly parallels the story of Charles Fourier's days waiting every afternoon for years after lunch for the wealthy benefactor he'd advertised for to appear, making his dreams of the first utopian phalanstery a reality. Needless to say, these benefactors never appeared; we're left only with the pathos of the frail wishes of these artist-visionaries, hoping against hope that some angel of capitalism would appear to rescue them from--well, capitalism.

The memoirs of Dawson and Rumaker are very different. Dawson's Black Mountain Book is fragmentary, impressionistic, animated by grudges, particularly against Olson himself, with whom Dawson had a falling out subsequent to his days as a student at the college (Olson apparently resented his representation in a previous book of Dawson's about his experiences at the college, the rather wonderfully titled An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline). The Rumaker book does a better job of conveying what it actually felt like to be a student at the college, in spite or because of the fact that it's more conventionally structured as a portrait of the artist as a young man, the author much tougher on his young, directionless, unformed queer self than he is on those who surrounded and instructed him. The portrait of Olson that emerges in Rumaker's book confirms for me my own fascination with the man: like Richard Hugo, the imaginary mentor of a much younger self, he was a gigantic man, alcoholic, sloppy, bruised and bruising, casually sexist, and yet tremendously sensitive, delicate even, obsessed with playing the role of Big Daddy yet arguably more a nurturing figure, androgynous or mother-like. Wanting to be the Master and yet enacting daily for his students, and now his readers, the struggle to become the master, embodying in his own towering flesh and towering Maximus the gap between human and universe.

Somehow I'd gone all this time without hearing Olson's voice, in spite of the many recordings available. But I was stunned by my encounter with these all-too-brief videos of him reading. Here he is reading "The Librarian" in March, 1966:

"Who is / Frank Moore?" Love that. And here he is again:

As one blogger correctly remarks, "His voice is like lightning dragged through smoke." And that accent! It makes him much more homely to me. The videos don't quite convey his size, but they do get a lot of his physicality across: the big gestures, the little smile, the violence with which he opens that bottle (of wine? of beer?) before reading "The Librarian." The blackness of those eyebrows. The shamanic confidence and charisma of his declamation of the poems, which nevertheless continue to convey the partial, rough, unfinished quality that fascinates and sometimes repels me when I read them. Everything the man ever wrote is closer to field notes or correspondence than it is to finished essays or poems (but his actual notes and letters, with the exception of the Mayan Letters, are almost unreadably gnomic or else saturated by the hipster lingo of his day ("you dig," for "you understand," etc.), not unlike Pound's letters). When it works, that rough notational quality transmits the materiality and immediacy of Olson's materials, presenting a marvelously democratic continuity between stimuli inner (personal history, memories, emotions, psychology, and crucially, his own oversized body) and outer (the history and landscape of Gloucester, the Yucatan, the writings of Melville, letters to the editor, etc., etc.). Riding the margin between imwelt and umwelt, populating that margin with his own musical imagination, making us recognize the strangeness and freshness of where and what we are. At its best, Olson's writing dwells in the zone that Thoreau found at once sublime and inhospitable: "The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?"

This re-encounter with Olson has me resolved to make him central to the Environmental Writing class I'll be teaching in the coming semester; I believe and hope that, as difficult as his writing can sometimes be, that even dead he can be a charismatic teacher, showing by the example of his words (and through the odd and compelling little documentary about him, Polis Is This, featuring narration by John Malkovich, of all people) and, even more, the example of a man thinking and reaching and assembling, in motion, live so to speak, how a writer can respond to space and place in a kind of simultaneous ecstatic layering of everything one knows and can find out about it.

Coming in March!

Severance Songs
Poems by Joshua Corey

Winner of the Dorset Prize, selected by Ilya Kaminsky

$16.95 paper
ISBN 978-1-932195-92-7

Publication Date: March 2011

In his third full-length book of poems, Joshua Corey puts the sonnet to the test with this sequence of alternately fractured, ventilated, and unrhymed poems written in the aftermath of 9/11 while Corey was living at a pastoral remove from war and terror in upstate New York. The tension between idyllic personal circumstances and horrific world-historical events led Corey to produce this series of layered poems, variously sardonic and sincere in tone.

Advance praise for Severance Songs:

“Joshua Corey’s book of sonnets is formally playful and emotionally raw, with an intensity of expression that is at times harrowing. . . . It is indeed the suppleness of the poet’s voice, in concert with his loves, fears, and the voices that he has ‘stood upon,’ that makes Severance Songs such an extraordinary volume.” — Paul Hoover

“In Severance Songs, Joshua Corey tends to the always-mysterious border that connects the interior and the exterior. Is one inside the tale if one alludes to it? Is the eye tethered as witness to what it sees? And who can avoid singing these ‘culpability cantos’? Yet if the lush Eden of intimacy foresees our later expulsion, this poet shows us how to stand at the garden’s threshold where ‘reaching builds on reaching.’ Corey risks the possible emptiness inherent in rupture to seek out the ways we are ‘knotted to one another’s possibilities.’ The architecture of the poem, he reveals, is replete with doors and windows and it is for us to discover whether we are looking in or looking out.”
— Elizabeth Robinson

“These songs shuttle between a past and a future, cast adrift or severed from a violent, ashen present into a necessary untimeliness, . . . What then of the sonnet, repository of desire and enemy of time? It is, as ever, that form by which we re-imagine subjectivity to confront altered circumstances, and to assess ‘the shipwreck of the singular’ in the maelstrom of the many. . . . (T)he poem is a skipping record of the effort ‘to be less alone,’ ‘to find an algorithm from inside mortal eyes.’ Yet the song itself is implicated, as is each citizen, in the mendacity and the war against meaning, since there is no ‘outside.’”
— Michael Palmer, from “On Joshua Corey” in Conjunctions

Joshua Corey was born in New York City, grew up in northern New Jersey, and graduated from Vassar College in 1993 then earned an M.A. in English literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Montana. He was awarded a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing from Stanford University in 1999, and received his Ph.D. in English from Cornell University in 2007. He is the author of Selah (Barrow Street Press, 2003), Fourier Series (Spineless Books, 2005), and two chapbooks: Compos(t)ition Marble (Pavement Saw Press, 2006) and Hope & Anchor (Noemi Press, 2007). He lives in Illinois and teaches at Lake Forest College.

from Severance Songs:

Thrash metal from a passing car dates

as a means of aggression—sap in blades

answers a human’s humid sprawl. So eyes seek
a line of hills where napalm walked. Anniversary

forswears the details in a triptych, foresees
the third as an artificial lake hemmed
by red dams surrounding creeping mists

into which civilian legs go scissoring.
A made thing, a view of delving, an ack-ack
trembling the Palestine Hotel. Of the earth,
of this foundry, I hew cold knowledge
by handle. At peace I do piece-work, at war

I warehouse for wiser generations
these culpability cantos, weary to put down.

1 comment:

adams24 said...

Lovely--I liked this poem reading it in Conjunctions, and am I making this up ir are there some changes? If so, I like 'em.

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