Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Off to Philadelphia tomorrow—purely for the fun of it. Will see friends, go to some panels, attend a reading or two, and report back.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

We interrupt this creeping sense of morbidity to tell you about two more interesting new books from Fence that I received recently, Tina Brown Celona's Snip Snip! and Ariana Reines' The Cow (click here to see 'em). Celona's last book for Fence, The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems, didn't make a big impression on me, though it was entertaining and whimsical. Snip Snip! has more meat on its bones: the whimsy is still there, but I'm more forcibly impressed with Celona's sense of the metaphysics of female embodiment. Her consciousness is saturated with afterimages from the work of Neruda and Paul Klee, while she also appears to have been designing surrealist covers for Vogue and O: The Oprah Magazine in her head. Like Chelsey Minnis, another Fence-published practioner of the gurlesque, she's also acutely self-conscious of the conditions of poetry production, as reflected in this excerpt from the last piece in the book, "Poem for Matt" (the ellipsis is in the original):
A poetry joke: A Language Poet and a Black Mountain School Poet and a Fence Poet are sitting around chewing the fat. What do we have in common? asked the Language Poet? But the Black Mountain School Poet was tired of stupid poetry jokes. He wanted to go to Asheville and smoke pine needles.

The Fence Poet kept getting up and going to the bathroom.


The old poets are afraid
The young poets will find out
They aren't interesting.
The young poets are afraid
Of getting old.
I have been cold all day, said the lemur,
When will people talk about my poems?

You can't trust me, I can't help being mean and clever. In a lot of the poems I AM JOKING.
This desperate tongue-in-cheek disavowal of sincerity exposes the bare rusted infrastructure of our poetry moment, caught between the exhaustion of the confessional impulse and the exhaustion of ironic wordplay. The naked desire to be somehow affirmed as a poet thrums like the nerve in a rotten tooth. Brown reminds me a little of Baudelaire, seeking to transform her lowest, most abjected moments into some kind of transcendence. Her language moves nervously back and forth between delighted wordplay (a delight in which she seems somehow ashamed) and an affectively reduced Valley Girl-type plain speech. Both formally and in terms of content she seems trapped in a series of mirrors, unable to stop looking at herself looking at others looking at herself:

There is some rotting fruit on the ground, a melon and some bananas. The men are sated and lie back on the ground naked. They are interested in each other's athleticism and their interest is not sexual. Where are the women? The women are absent. The colors are green and gold and black (shadow). I want to fight the men who look so tired. I want to revive them and straighten their shoulders. I want to transpose them to another painting and wipe their faces and give them sustenance. I want to give them milk.


The woman has a man's face. She is staring at her parts. Her breasts denote womanhood. She is in gray. She is naked and she props herself up on her arms. The ground takes up most of the canvas. I want to fight her and hide her belly folds. I want to fight myself with all my arms against all my arms. The pain causes me to become rigid and when I fight myself I know I am not coming back. This is totally fine with me.
Brown's book is primarily concerned with evoking the pathos of choosing an identity, or in having one chosen for you. She squirms, she tapdances, she smiles coquettishly while throwing up in her mouth. Ariana Reines' The Cow is fiercer and wilder, embracing the persona of the eponymous ruminant, taking the consumption of (female) flesh literally. Brown flirts with obscenity, or more precisely our fascination with obscenity; Reines is viscerally, exuberantly obscene, yet somehow more in continuity with the hidden obscenity of the Real discovered by modernism and psychoanalysis—I think of Sianne Ngai's essay "Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust," but also of the primal scene of modernist poetry, The Waste Land, where the corpse planted in the speaker's garden turns out to be the mass grave of the (feminine?) nature that our civilization perches precariously upon: the cow with her vulnerable eyes and the cattle industry that produces and consumes her is the figure for this. The body is cracked open, violated, marked for death, taboo rather than sacred:

She clasped the event to her and proceeded. Fucked her steaming eyehole and ended it. The cracked things was a doomed pidgin, it meant something.

Yesterday. A patience would be ideal. Make an art of it, sere notes winding their way through an air to have become the name of her going. Her name on the list, and some certain information they had.

After a time there is no more accuracy, after a time you can't get the note clean of what it might have been.

Under the skirt of Mother Ginger huddle little boys and girls. A holiday shit stain. His scholarliness justifies those flights

Of fancy you condemn in him. And the gummy hulls of words muzzle the chaw, a kind of cud that will not do. An umlaut could be a cousin's bone,

The poisoned nuance that started everything. It was from eating ourselves. It had to be

Someone else's sickness first, our silence, our good balance, our usefulness. There is something certain creatures long for. To be hacked up and macerated. That's having it come out and go into another body.

Eaten, gemmed with grease and herbs. Whose low language ruined our bowels. Whose lowing eventually meant nothing. We knew we were to become a ream of flesh. Another nothing.
"Gemmed with grease!" I can't recall the last time I came across a text so scarifying, so disgust-ed/ing, that also seemed so verbally alive. Like Brown, Reines is also concerned with the position of poetry and herself as a speaker within poetry, though the sheer force of her negativity seems just possibly to contain its own seeds of regeneration. From the last page of "Transport," toward the end of the book:
It's the same old story and you have to learn to speak the CLAMATO language of the elders or they will fuck you too.

You have to learn to speak the deciduous vocables of the true poets a beautiful whiteness.

The feet of white girls in flipflops. Fake hippie skirts from Forever 21. I hate the fop in me I want to eat a nipple of Venus because I am becoming a magnificent woman. Hurting culture want to bleed faggot

Leg wax high heel lipstick cuntface a marketing job designers wanting the best I want filthier but not to be homeless because I love myself too much bluebell cups in the rain a poetics of the music of the poolside therapy. Hate me. We are still thinking too much.

At this site, at this juncture, we are going to be we are becoming free.
Maybe Beckett is the more appropriate forebear to cite (the phrase "Go go" appears repeatedly, while its last words are "Go on. Go on"), and Stein if Stein were unable or unwilling to recuse herself as completely as she seems to from the matrix of heterosexual desire. Desire/disgust is the axis both of these books travel upon, Brown empahsizing the former and Reines emphasizing the latter. Above all I am impressed by their vulnerability, their angry nakedness. The only book by a young male poet that comes close to this level of lacerated sexed scrutiny that I can think of is Aaron Kunin's Folding Ruler Staranother Fence book. Say what you will about the magazine: as a press I think they're demonstrating some real vision over there, and an admirable willingness to tolerate discomfort. The pleasure of these books is in their sting.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Read Andy Gricevich's essay (warning: PDF file) from the new issue of Absent. A gem, and an excellent, more affectively appealing companion to Simon DeDeo's "Towards an Anarchist Poetics" in the same issue. "Reading and writing [vulnerablist] poetry can be a training in the flexibility of thought, a way of making explicit the ordinarily unconscious ways in which we synthesize experience and a weaning of oneself from the demand for completed narratives." That says much better what I was trying to say about anti-absorptive poetry, and even retains a hint of my initial judgment that narratives of completion and closure satisfy less-than-adult needs. I'm interested in the style in which it's written, too: the ends of sentences are more distinguishable than their beginnings. A little like Adorno's prose but (thank goodness) much, much shorter.

"It's precisely the fact that poetry is not politics, that it's always at least one step away from immediate need and external struggle, that makes it a potential source of new possibilities, to be heard from time to time in the silences between the insistent beats of triumph and rectitude."

Vulnerablism is an ethic to which this blog aspires.
Lovely weekend in New York celebrating Emily's birthday and visiting with Mary Jo (who I found in excellent form—look for her newest book, Elegy, from Graywolf in October 2007) and la famille de Camille Guthrie. Sorry to miss the SOON Reading, though—Aaron has a report on it. While in the city, I read an advance copy of Michael Earl Craig's second book, Yes, Master, which I found winningly, darkly surreal, as I did his first book. Many of the poems take the form of twisted, superficially red state narratives whose real interest and pleasure comes from the sudden hairpin turns—as is so often the case with good postmodern poetry, it's the paratactic structure that asks the reader to take little, uncanny leaps from line to line and sentence to sentence. Craig's work is on the lighter side of the spectrum—closer to James Tate than to Ashbery, and closer to either than he is to the more calisthenically demanding leaps of a Clark Coolidge, say, whose parataxis is unified more by sound than by mood and tone, as here. Craig is a balletic comedian, like Chaplin or Jacques Tati (he has Tati in a football helmet suspended in midair on the cover), whose comedy derives from the discomfiture of the human being in a world of perverse objects. That Craig's landscape is that of Montana rather than the urban world of Chaplin serves to remind us, if we needed to be reminded, that the logic of the commodity which animates things and deanimates people is alive and well in the pastoral West:
Because of Roy

Roy could move a lot of sheep.
He moved them off the mountain
with his arms outstretched
at forty degree angles.
Roy never spoke.
He wore navy corduroys.
This annoyed some of the guys.
He walked like a foster child
stepping carefully
and sometimes robotically.
The sheep respected this.
They kept their mouths shut
for once, and flowed down, down,
in a tight and docile band
over the uneven terrain,
because of Roy.
While in the city I acquired a couple of used books: a battered fourth printing of Kenneth Koch's Thank You (one day I hope to own the new collected poems, but this is much handier and more portable) and a book that called to me even though I didn't quite recognize the author: Frank Samperi's The Prefiguration. It's a physically beautiful book published in 1971, and at first glance (all I've had time for) seems very early-Poundian in its aesthetic: brief lyric landscapes in a classical Chinese mode vie with scattered bits of Italian that make me think of Dante and the troubadours. Might be a good book to relax with in between bouts of dissertation-writing and paper-grading.

Bob Archambeau has joined the pleasure discussion, to which I don't have much to add right now. But Mark and Eric do. High-ho, high-ho, it's off to work I go.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Round-Up

Off to NYC this afternoon for a weekend celebrating my wife's birthday. We'll see movies, friends, and the revival of Company. I'm especially looking forward to catching up with some old poet friends: Mary Jo Bang from my Montana days and Camille Guthrie and Duncan Dobbelman (and their little son, Pierre!) from my Vassar days. In the meantime, some things that have caught or held my attention lately:

- The conversation on literary pleasure between Eric, Mark, and myself. I don't have very much new to add on this—I was planning on saying something about the difference between the demands and pleasures of anti-absorptive poetry versus the critical practice of approaching an immersive text anti-absorptively, but Mark beat me to it. I'm intrigued by his call for "a more nuanced, more 'thick' description of the experience & the pleasures of anti-absorptive texts," and I'd like to hear/think more about this. Such acts of description might be more compelling, and more ethical, in acquiring more readers for the kinds of writing I love than the tactic of shaming and scolding people. And as Eric points out:
It seems to me that you're not talking about the ethics of a particular pleasure at this point, but rather the pleasure of acting and thinking ethically. Through essays and other para-poetic work, "anti-absorptive" poets have framed their verse as an ethical / political project. The sensory and aesthetic pleasures it offers, and the intellectual pleasures (of "figuring things out," or simply "figuring") thus have added to them a new, third pleasure: that of doing justly, or developing one's moral sense.
(Hey Eric, how do you make your blockquotes so cool-looking?) I think this is an astute rephrasing of what I was trying to say, though I also have to credit Mark's arugula metaphor and wonder if ethical pleasure isn't in fact supererogatory to the pleasure in difficulty for difficulty's sake. I don't believe that it is, but more needs to be done, as Mark says, to qualitatively describe (if not quantify) the pleasures of the anti-absorptive so that we can make the distinction. Otherwise we're left with de gustibus non est disputandum and "Some people just like spinach."

- Tangentially related: as many of you have heard, Simon DeDeo, late of Rhubarb Is Susan, along with Christopher Douglas, Elisa Gabbert, and Joanna Guldi, have launched a new magazine, absent. So far I've only read a few terrific poems and Simon's manifesto, "towards an anarchist poetics::". I love manifestos, I like the way they can stir the pot, and I'm curious to see what response this one will generate. I myself bristled a bit at the first section, because it seemed to me that he was conflating the power of theory (or more specifically, the Foucauldian theory of power as that which surrounds and penetrates all language, like the Force) with the corrupted language of Bush/Cheney, thus drawing no distinctions between their corrosive/coercive speech and that of literary theorists. There is, of course, a kind of violence in disciplinarity, as Foucault would be the first to remind you: certainly I've had to learn to write and speak a certain way to be accepted into the institutional framework of the academy in which I wish to make my living; still, I believe I have far more discursive freedom than the hapless job interviewees Simon describes overhearing at his local Starbucks. But it does not appear on second look that Simon really intends to start his revolution in the English departments: he has bigger fish to fry.

I'm not fully persuaded by the specific critical gestures Simon makes to show how the poetry he wishes to valorize (his example-poets are Mina Loy, Tom Raworth, and Lisa Robertson) functions as anarchist text, because it seems to reduce to the old Language-y argument that anti-absorptive writing (a more general description than "anarchist" that seems to fit the poems he quotes) permits/demands democratic participation from the reader in the creation of its meanings. More compelling to me is Simon's extremely clear explanation of anarchist poetry as that which seeks either a line of flight from power (all "power" being ipso facto bad to an anarchist) in a kind of primitivism (this has implications for my thinking about pastoral that I'm going to have to, er, think more about it) or fights it, attempting "to batter the language into shapes that cannot be conduits of power." This seems like it could be a very productive path toward understanding what flarf is trying to do (flarf is anarchistic, it seems to me, in the old-fashioned bomb-throwing sense), though I don't quite see how flarfists or any group can avoid becoming power-structures in their own right, if only because every group has an inside and an outside. But perhaps that's just why Simon doesn't consider flarf, but rather three poets (he also mentions Julianna Spahr, Laura Glenum, and Frederick Seidel—whatever else I can say about Simon, I certainly approve of his taste) who are outside any groupings less porous than "Modernism" (Loy), "an avant garde body aligned in many ways with American experiments such as Language Poetry" (Raworth—the object of the clause is actually Raworth's work, not his body, but I like the effect produced), or "a kind of nomad" (Robertson). Robertson is recently on record with her rejection of "community" and embracement of "the real texture of friendship," which certainly seems in line with Simon's anarchist reading of her; it may also have the salutary effect of making anarchism seem more homely and indigenous, as it were: an expression of how many people actually live or wish to live, rather than a doxology. Is friendship a form of the "counterpower" that Simon speaks of, tantalizingly, at the end of his essay? Much to ponder and like in the new absent: I'm looking forward to reading the other essays from Thomas Basbøll and Andy Gricevich next.

- Finally, I'm a little surprised by how much I'm enjoying the latest issue of APR. I'm finding things to like about almost all the poetry I've read in it: Yusef Komunyakaa isn't much on my radar these days but there's a lot of heft and moral grandeur to the excerpts here from The Autobiography of My Alter Ego; Cynthia Cruz is sharp and spiky; a resurrected essay on "Poetic Listening" by Merle Brown has interesting things to say about an odd-seeming couple, Wallace Stevens and Frank O'Hara; Mark Doty, another big-deal poet who I don't read very often, blew me away with his beautiful "Theory of the Sublime" (and I enjoyed the essay on its composition that followed it); Sarah Maclay, who I hadn't heard of before, contributes two prose poems whose whirling rhythms will stay with me; David Trinidad has an enjoyably gossipy, almost trashy account of the friendship and rivalry between Sexton and Plath, along with a more thoughtful examination of their work and influence on each other; Anne Carson introduced me to one of the greatest poems of Denmark, Inger Christensen's It, which I'd never heard of; and Robin Becker sheds some light on Virgil's Georgics as a poetry of sustainability, of obvious interest to me (I was also surprised to discover, though she doesn't say this explicitly, that a significant portion of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech might have been lifted from Virgil: Becker quotes David Ferry's translation on those fortunate enough to avoid "experience of the iron / Hard-heartedness of the law, the Forum's madness, / Insolence of bureaucratic office." Doesn't that sound just like "the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes"? Why have I never seen a note on the play calling attention to this?). There's more I haven't gotten to, but I'm impressed with how much better a job APR seems to be doing at being ecumenical than the higher-profile and vastly better-funded Poetry.

Monday, December 04, 2006

My musings on fiction and pleasure have produced valuable responses from Eric Selinger and Mark Scroggins, as well as a tip fromo Ray Davis to check out an old essay of his which reframes the debate in terms of science fiction. I'm grateful for all of these interventions, though I feel closest to what Mark has to say in a passage that Eric rejects:
The deus ex machina here is to invoke a political or (which often boils down to the same thing) moral argument: that anti-absorptive work is somehow bbetter for you, or that it somehow works to change the world (not immediately, not directly, not vulgar-Marxistly) by altering the way you or your readers conceive the world.

In my bones I believe that these arguments are more or less right, tho I have yet to see them stated in a way that I find more than temporarily convincing.
For Eric, all pleasure is equally valid and anyone who says otherwise is deluded or a snob. Whatever my moral/psycho-sexual/pathological choices of metaphor, I too tend to look at pleasure as an absolute good—or it would be more accurate to say that I'm extremely suspicious of those who would regulate or prescribe pleasures. But I have no problem being a sort of carnival barker for the pleasures undreamt of by those who've never been properly exposed to more sophisticated pleasures than the McRib of middlebrow fiction and poetry. Come see the Bearded Lady of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E! Thrill to the feats of daring of the New York School! This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Dark Ride!

Eric is absolutely correct when he says, "Don't think that reading immersive fiction is 'passive'; it only feels that way because the skills it takes come so easily to you, have been so naturalized, that you no longer notice you're deploying them!" But doesn't that suggest an argument based on education: that the anti-absorptive requires the development of a new skill set, one that develops one's critical capacity because it at least potentially resists being so "naturalized"? And wouldn't that be a change in the world, if more people were capable of registering the Other in others and the Other in themselves through cultivating texts that resist "naturalization"? The opposite of the impulse to repeat, "That's just the way it is"? (Cue Bruce Hornsby.) It's certainly changed my world. It feels like an ethical opportunity if not an ethical imperative: a chance to enlarge and develop one's moral senses.

More later if the mood strikes.

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