Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blooming Belly

Thirty-two weeks and counting.

Friday, November 16, 2007


What little time I now have for poetry—reading and writing it—I find on the commuter train, a new textural dimension of my life. Every weekday morning (except for Mondays, when I sometimes drive) I rise in the gradually increasing cold (which offers a kind of spurious relief from my fears of global warming) and stand on the platform at Main and Chicago Streets in Evanston, facing the sun that rises on my right shoulder. The shock of the urban is still with me after three months here, though neither Evanston nor Chicago have anywhere near the level of street intensity that I associate with the ur-city of my childhood, New York. Still it's a discombulation and a rush to find myself jostling with the other reverse commuters (outbound in the morning, inbound at night) onto the sleek silver Metra train, to find a seat (I prefer the upper level, solus, facing the direction of travel), settle in with my briefcase on my lap, and slip a slim volume out of it to read until the Lake Forest stop, thirty-five minutes later. The inside of the train is quiet in the morning, except for the occasional hissing tenor of someone's earphones or the conductor calling, "New riders, up top!" Evening trains are another story: crammed full of people talking loudly to each other or into their cellphones, I find it easier to concentrate on fiction, generally some novel I've borrowed from the little lending rack that the Lake Forest Public Library keeps thoughtfully stacked inside the train station there. Mostly it's thrillers and romances, but last month I grabbed a copy of Robertson Davies' The Manticore and was persuaded enough by its Jungo-Canadian oddity to reread the whole Deptford trilogy. This week it was Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying: heavy-handed and leaden in its prose but still utterly affecting in its portrait of African-American life in 1940s Louisiana. I've attempted more ambitious prose on the train—I'm finally reading Bolano's The Savage Detectives, and I was amused the other morning to see a buttoned-up buisnessman reading it while waiting on the opposite platform, Chicago-bound—but as a hardcover it's not an ideal commuter's volume.

(As content perhaps it's another story: the novel depicts innumerable picaresque wanderings and encounters, yet never suspends for a moment the atmosphere of doom and fate that hangs over characters who can only play at autonomy. They're all riding the twentieth century Latin American train, whether in Mexico City or Barcelona or Paris, and they can't get off.)

At any rate I've had time for some poetry: the new issues of Chicago Review and Xantippe, and now a couple of books I've long meant to get to: Kimberly Lyons' Saline and Bradley Paul's The Obvious. I've sung the praises of CR often enough; here I'll just say that I was particularly moved and excited by the continuation of C.D. Wright's "Rising, Falling, Hovering"; the wholly unexpected Book V of Ronald Johnson's Radi Os; Georges Perec's still-relevant call "For a Realist Literature"; and Allen Grossman's pervesely elegant "On Communicative Difficulty in General and 'Difficult' Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane's 'The Broken Tower'" (I aspire to somehow unite the concerns of Perec and Grossman in my own writing). The new Xantippe demonstrates Kristen Hanlon's almost pitch-perfect editorial ear: it's a splendid mash-up of postmodern lyric and antilyric. Standouts in the first camp: Julie Carr's "(Equivocal)," Karla Kelsey's "As Fire Unto Fire," Sharon Lynn Osmond's "Door to the River" (I would gladly use this poem the next time I was trying to teach the concept of ekphrasis), and Sandra Miller's "Ad Halcyon"; the anti-lyricists of note are Jasper Bernes (with several poems that appear in Starsdown), Tanya Larkin's "Market Day" and "Villa Maria," Kasey Mohammed's disconcerting "The Poordom" (successful example of the kind of poem in which a coinage or abstraction is made to bear increasingly heavy fardels of metaphorical weight), and Rodney Koeneke's "Eerie Wampum" and "Larry's House of Brakes" (okay, that last one has a big lyric push inside it: "a heroic and enormous effort to nudge the myth forward").

Also of note in the new Xantippe: excerpts from Lisa Jarnot's forthcoming Robert Duncan biography, and a mess of book reviews, many of which I'm happy to see are of books more than two years old but which nevertheless deserve attention: the Lyons book (that's why I took it off the shelf), Brenda Iijima's Around Sea (I'd like to reread that now that my head's flush with Thoreau), Rachel Zucker's The Last Clear Narrative (might give me a little insight into the experiential territory of pregnancy and motherhood), and Dan Bouchard's Some Mountains Removed (in which the reviewer, India Radfar, surprisingly and usefully compares Bouchard's versions of pastoral with Bernadette Mayer's).

I haven't opened the Lyons yet—the book has merely graduated from the shelf to the briefcase, where it will ride around with me until I've absorbed it in the literal fits and stops of the train. This morning I read half of the Paul book—I recognize in him a kindred Stevensian ephebe. His poems present a kind of daylit surrealism to the reader. Ashbery and the language poets represent one degree of poetic movement that's lodged almost entirely within language; you come down from that mountain to the degree that your words attach themselves to representable images and situations (in Grossman's terms, you embrace more and more the violence of representation, a curious index of poetic value that logically redescribes the most abstract poems as pacifistic). As John Yau describes him in a back-cover blurb: "In locating the speaker in words, rather than placing him (or her) in stories, Paul compels the speaker to contempalte whether words lead one to knowing someone else or to recognizing further mysteries." But the shapes of stories, or the habits of knowing associated with narrative, are more strongly discernible in Paul than in the poets of higher elevations—at the same time he's above the linguistically quiescent narrativity of a Charles Simic or Russell Edson. To wit:
Frantic Lights, Terminal Lights: The Man Who Invented Paper

Paper was made because Tsai Lun
said it should be made.
He was adamant, like a fable,
yet vague, like a fable.
The rabbit asked "Why?"
and "In what city?"
and as the blanket proffered its answer
everyone said "You're a blanket,
stop talking." Inane,
peregrine, all those things.
All was bright
in the bay window's yawp:
that is how I remember our street.
The bricks were brown
and the sidewalk was plugged with elms,
like Tsai Lun saying
"We didn't know it would be light green,
but we knew it would be a moth."
So Paul is a child of Stevens and Ashbery insofar as he deframes his sentences and disorients the reader; but the whimsical consistency of his voice prevents you from getting too disoriented (that's how one kind of reader sees it) or it prevents you from becoming sufficiently disoriented (that's how another kind of reader would put it). There's a lightness here that delights but also threatens to disanchor the poetry from sources of greater power (the extrapoetic institutional context for a poem that Grossman talks about: Rome for Horace, Anglican theology for the metaphysicals, academia for Grossman himself, etc.). You might also simply ask what occasions these poems. My instinct is to celebrate the poet's freedom from any obvious context—after all, that's why most political poetry is bad, because it's too dependent on the immediate context that gives it the illusion of use-value. But it may also disencumber a poetry to the point of rendering it minor.

Since Mark recently expressed nostalgia for the days of work in progress, here's something I scribbled on the train this morning. No title yet:
This person sat smally kicking his legs against the stall, while above him loomed The Looming Carl. This person could not meet The Carl's eye but went on shrilly kicking. The Carl was one of those people who assume that all other people feel just as they do; he had a toothache; he roared Open your mouth and opened his own; his tongue lolled horribly. This person kicked faintly the stall, which I might as well tell you was really The Carl's left shin. For why should we hold secrets from each other: from this person, from I who write this beside a pot of yogurt at daybreak? I'll teach you, The Carl howled, beating his mitts against the stall doors—and he did, and he did, and he did.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I'd like to second Mark's recommendation of Emma Bee Bernstein's (what a great name! the daughter of Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein) and Nona Willis Aronowitz's GIRLdrive. They're on an inspiring trip.

Some of their posts raise the possibility of male feminists: it's not a title I feel I necessarily have the right to, but I am going to be the father of a daughter who will have to struggle for her own power and freedom in a culture that is routinely violent toward women. Or of a son who will have to come to understand his privileges and find his own path toward the renunciation of such violence. My influence and example will be crucial in either case, and not just in a philosophical way, but in the day-to-day work of meeting his or her needs: changing diapers, cooking meals, defusing tantrums, telling stories. So I will at least claim the right to call myself a fellow traveler of feminism.

Will I have a girly daughter, or a butch one? Will my son be gay, or a football player (or a gay football player)? We have no idea who's choosing to incarnate with us. I hope he or she will find room enough to become whom he or she needs to be with us. But I'll have feelings about his or her choices, too.

Reading the blog of Bernstein & Aronowitz, women just a little older than my students, I feel a kind of paternal wishfulness. That is to say, I hope that my daughter grows up to be like them. Or that my son is wise and strong enough to attract the company of women like them.

I am changing right in front of my own eyes.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Still searching for my rhythm as a new prof, which has meant that blogging has dropped near to the bottom of my list of priorities, which nowadays looks something like this:

1) Prep for classes.
2) Grade.
3) Spend as much time as possible with Emily, and the Noodle in her belly, and the idea of the Noodle, and the idea of fatherhood, and the terrors and pleasures anticipatory hitherto these states of being/becoming.
4) More grading.
5) Fret unproductively about my spring syllabi.
6) Fret unproductively about my unfiled dissertation.
7) Fret unproductively about grading.
8) Write no poems.
9) Read no poems.
10) Blog.

All of which means I have precious little time to fulfill my role as patriarchal commissariat of the avant-garde. In her most recent post at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog, Ange Mlinko identifies me as belonging to a coterie of male poet-bloggers who have arrogated to themselves the privilege of deciding "what innovative is." It's interesting to be interpolated as a member of the patriarchy: it feels, and probably is, impersonal to who I actually am and what my real opinions might be (about feminism, for instance). That is, I doubt Ange intends any personal malice. But whether or not I fit the powdered wig she's placing on me, I have no doubt but that she's addressing a real and serious problem of underepresentation of women in a community with supposed egalitarian commitments.

The global frustration expressed by Ange (and by Julianna Spahr and Stephanie Young and others involved in the debate centering on the most recent issue of The Chicago Review) is one I've heard expressed locally by some of the women (and a few of the men) at the few poetry-related gatherings I've attended so far here in Chicago. That is, as far as the poetry scene here goes, it's a boys' town. I see no reason to doubt this assertion. Women are visible here, but the men are more so: a glance at The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, as good an index of the State of the Post-Avant in the City of the Big Shoulders as any, shows me 21 women contributors out of 52 total, or 40 percent. Not exactly parity, is it? A similar, slightly wider disparity manifests when I compare how many of the poets included self-identify as editors, curators, or otherwise having a public platform that goes beyond just writing and teaching: 10 women to 16 men.

It seems self-evident to me that the work of feminism is far from over in any public sphere you'd care to name, including poetry; it's also clear that the avant-garde scene is no better (or worse) than the mainstream one when it comes to the patriarchal structure of power that is the default mode for all of our institutions. I'm talking about the real world relationships between people and the means of production, now—I am persuaded that the actual writing produced by the avant-garde has a greater potential to destabilize hierarchical structures of meaning and feeling than the mainstream epiphanic lyric does. But that only seems to apply to poems—the discourse around poetry, particularly in the reviled comments streams (mine are less populated than some but the number of female commenters seems much smaller than the male population), is masculinist by default when it isn't patently chauvinistic or violent (there's nasty stuff slung in Ron Silliman's comment fields almost every time a female poet is his subject).

As someone with a public voice, however small and tinny, I therefore accept responsibility for doing my part to achieve greater gender parity in the poetry scenes I'm a part of. I can do this without compromising because I'm already invested in the notion that the best poems come embedded in a palpable historical and bodily context. And insofar as I'm interested in the Frankfurt School vein of modern poetry, I'm strongly drawn toward work where the biopolitical situation of the author is part of the work's complex of intention and effects: that's why I've been so enthusiastic about such texts as Ariana Reines' The Cow, Shanxing Wang's Mad Science in Imperial City (there's a wonderful interview with Wang here at Jacket), and Alice Notley's Grave of Light. When some younger male poets employ some of the tricks of polyglot indeterminacy, I suspect them of just trying to be hip; that's rarely the case when I'm reading the work of a poet who's speaking from a situation of otherness to the white patriarchal mainstream. As entranced as I can be by mere formalism and its potential for negativity, I find biopolitically motivated formalism more compelling, more answerable to the cry of its occasion.

To be a reader of use to myself and others, I have to remain answerable, first of all, to my own inclinations and whims. But that doesn't mean I can't sometimes assume a critical stance toward my own desideratum: if my writing is androcentric that's worth noting, and I've been wondering lately how to take better account of race in my work. Otherwise, the autonomy I strive for (see preceding post) isn't generative or disinterested; it's just position-taking and brinksmanship, shuffling pieces around a board, mere assertion and bloviating. I aspire to something more than that.

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