Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Chad Blair, a fellow University of Montana creative writing alum, has written a sensitive and appreciative review of Compos(t)ition Marble for the English Department's alumni newsletter. Click here then click "Spring/Summer 2008 • Volume 1, Issue 2" (it's a PDF, so you may want to right-click and save) to read it. The newsletter is worth perusing in full, as is the inaugural issue: it testifies to what a vital and interesting writing program Montana has had and continues to have. I'm proud to have gone there.

My favorite sentence from the review: "So this poem reads like the working out of an impossible math problem titled what is everything urban happening right now?" And it's truly humbling to hear this sentence of Allen Grossman's quoted in reference to what I was trying to do in that poem: "The highest form which poetic ambition, in my mind, can take is to join together oracular profundity with the whole, intact, harmonious, and socially-addressed countenance."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Happy Bloomsday

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Further Notes on Poetic Ecologies

16 May 2008

A poet's talk by Jack Collom kicks off the day. "I think nature is made of fruitful contradictions." The structure of trees, the structure of poems—"rivertrees." The poem flows in like a river, branches out like a tree. Xylem refers to the structural hardness of wood but it is also a conduit for liquid. Quotes Darwin: "The greatest amount of life can be supported by the greatest diversification of structure."

"It's okay to be partly mechanical. Otherwise you couldn't walk! Downplay 'meaning' a bit."

- "Nature is everthing and something."
- "It's the ocean culture floats in."
- "It's what's not built."
- "Oooooh!"
- "It's a rose and it's a photographed rose."
- "It's the desire to smash nature to bits."

A poem in its entirety:
Nature's too slow.
People get
"The shockingly vast gulf between time and moment."

In normal descriptive writing we tend to collage in labels. "But the things needn't be entities wearing badges." "We don't so much see things as recognize things." A definition for metaphor: "essence revealed by indirection." "Writing description is a process of circumventing data per se." "It takes imagination to see what's in front of you, to avoid using labels."

"Help to shift our reverence energy into activism." "Political poems [are] compassionate noise."

Wonderful word: spandrel. Refers to the space between two arches, but Collom uses it to describe the variances in a system.

Finishes with a long, sad, astonished poem, "Passage," about the destruction of the passenger pigeon. In the Q&A he makes an appealing distinction regarding Darwin: that he thinks diversity and mutation—the theory of expansion in Darwin—is more significant than natural selection. Mentions McKenzie Wark as originator of a phrase, "third nature." Says "second nature" originates with Cicero.

Franca Bellarsi, the conference organizer (a very sweet soul) asks if Collom's theory of language as second nature is a challenge to or rejection of deconstruction, poststructuralism, et al. Collom: there are lots of contradictory truths in nature, implying there's no necessary conflict between these positions. "Multiple truths concurrently operational." Pound's Chinese writing visual-onomatopoetic and arbitrary.

Where things are coming from is more important than what they point to.

Good stuff. Jack's a very appealing character: I didn't know his work before this but shall seek it out now.

Mid-morning panel on pastoral. My paper, "Tansy City: Charles Olson and the Prospects for Avant-Pastoral" is first. I won't say more about that now.

Adam Dickinson gives a paper on Erin Moure's "deterritorialized pastoral" in a newish book of hers: Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, which is a kind of translation from Pessoa/Caeiro. Combines Pessoa's pastoral landscape with the geographical facts of the city of Toronto's burial and entombment of its brooks and streams. This heuristic combination, Adam says, is a form of 'pataphysics, which suggests a critical-playful attitude toward the limits of scientific language in conventional ecopoetry.

Talks about ecopoetry's emphasis on referentiality and realism, and its concomitant neglect of postmodernism. "Realism"-->turn to science. Glen A. Love says in Practical Ecocriticism that scientific ecology can "reel us in when we've gone too far." But as Adam says, "If there's science that imagines itself as poetry, what can we then make of poetry that imagines itself to be science?"

Cites Christian Bok's take on 'pataphysics—that it makes weak arguments stronger through the deterritorialization of scientific procedures.

I'd say then that a binary between Romanticism and referential realism continues to obtain in our ecopoetic discourse. I'd argue that the weakness of the latter is in its turn from the imagination's capabilities of affect—that form of knowledge won't change our behavior, as scientific knowledge about the lethality of smoking has largely failed to persuade people to quit.

Moure's is a practice of ecstatic translation or "transelation." She adopted, in her words, "preposterous and excessive" constraints for her project.

Angela M. Leonard gives a paper on African-American gravesites and how visiting them complicates W.E.B. DuBois' notion of "double consciousness." The focus is on "mourners who return to environments." The "syndetic" reading of gravesites—"memory work" that extracts contradictory materials which must be accepted without being resolved.

DuBois: double consciousness creates "moral hesitancy" in both black and white Americans.

Jonathan Skinner is last with a presentation on constraints and procedures in pastoral poetry. He reminds us that the "ouvroir" of Oulipo refers colloquially to a sewing circle. The move from constraint toward procedure—"a restraint on the task of writing itself."

Authors/works mentioned included Alexander "Eck" Finlay's Mesostic Herbarium; Stephen Ratcliffe (whose constraints in Real include a) something he sees out the window; b) something that happened yesterday; something from Woolf's To the Lighthouse); Zukofsky's 80 Flowers as a "species saturation project".

Ecocriticism demands that you know what you're talking about.

"...constraint as a way of taming the unconscious." Ethical implications of Noulipo: "The constraint is a procedure for the distribution of agency."

17 May 2008

Barely wake up in time for the last panel (2:30 PM!) on poetry and science after a night's carousing with Jonathan and Robin Purvis. Madhur Anand talks about Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity as literary analogies to ecological ambiguities. She uses Ashbery poems as demonstrations of the types.

The environment functions like a metaphor, or at least a zone of ambiguity, because it connects human activities to the nonhuman (and of course is also the scene of human-to-human interaction).

"Deterministic chaos" refers to persistent and consistent chaos and variation—chaos regularized. Random vs. chaotic dynamics—the latter can have an intrinsic stability. "Strange attractors." An increase in diversity creates more stability. "Stochastic resonance."

Empson's "vaguely imagined forces" that hold a poem together --> "emergent property" in biology refers to what holds a system together, i.e. the movement of flocks of birds that depend upon no single bird's decisions or agency. (Some nice video here of flocks of starlings.)

Poems and scientific models both get criticized for their ambiguities, but it's a necessary space for creativity.

What is poetic truth's relation to testability and the falsified?

Lucille Lang Day, a physician, on "Poetry, Ecology, and the Human Brain." Mentions an anthropologist named Roy Rappaport who theorizes that religion evolved as a means of organizing groups.

Music and singing may have preceded grammar and words—or rather a poetic grammar/syntax (rhyme, alliteration, etc.) came first. (Kristeva's semiotics?)

"The human brain is hardwired for poetry and religion, but not science."

Day claims that poetry could be a useful way for conveying scientific information and attitudes, since it's a more basic mode of communication. I have my doubts about this. Or rather, she's half right: poetry could sacralize scientific apprehensions that our senses cannot perceive. But poetry is not simple, or at least not all poetry. I'm too committed to the idea of poetry as a mode of cognition to accept its demotion to a mode of rhetoric—which seems to be what she's suggesting.

The most compelling example of a successful transfer or endowment of a natural space with sacred energy is the 9/11 memorial forest, in which the names of the dead have been tied to the branches of trees. What if every citizen gave his or her name to a tree or some other bit of biome?

The other problem with Day's argument is poetry's staggering unpopularity—it's a lousy vehicle for propaganda. Her argument that scientists themselves could make use of poetry seems more useful. But that instrumentalizes poetry, too—suggesting that it might foster intuition in scientists to make them more creative and efficient in finding solutions to our problems. I worry this line of thinking leaves everything in the hands of specialists and continues to disempower ordinary people.

Mari-Lou Rowley, a poet-physicist, presents a talk called "Ecopoetics as Enactivist Poetics."

Disturbing news: the very shape of cloud crystals is changing with the climate. Dehydration of the upper atmosphere accelerates warming, because water vapor mediates solar radiation.

Twenty percent of aerosols are generated by cooking meat.

Most of the poetry panels I've attended which demonstrate much in the way of theoretical vigor have been dominated by men. Here we have a panel full of scientists, and they're all women.

"Living smaller means not having less, but not wanting more." Enactivism: "The world is not what we observe, but what we do."

Bio-semiotics: the sign rather than the molecule becomes the basic unit with which life is described. "Aboutness," "contextual recognition."

Part of our crisis at this moment stems from the ignorant devaluation of poetry and science—I feel both have become marginal discourses, in America at least.

Ambiguity can be used as a weapon—consider the politicians who say we can't act on global warming because "certainty" is unachievable.

The final plenary address is given by Andrew McMurray, introduced as a poststructuralist thinker about Thoreau and ecocriticism.

"The world is about once again to become a very large place."

Intuition, he says, gets more respect in the sciences than the humanities, which depend too much upon "pseudo-rigor" (theory built upon theorists). "Blinded by an excess of vision." Our inability to see the horror of the end of our living world.

"I intuit a connection between well-chosen words and a world worth living in." "You can't get there [the world] from here [poetry]." Yet we must.

Frederic Jameson's "Metacommentary": start from the need for interpretation. Why do we need to interpret in the first place? "The unnaturalness of the hermeneutic situation."

Montaigne: the process of thought (intuition) is more important than what we we think (tuition—that's Emerson).

Ideas are wedges that choose and discard. The realist wedge says some language is better accommodated to the world than others. This view predominates in ecocriticism.

Wedge #2: Some texts and poets offer us better examples of such language—the "green canon"—which ignores literature as a totality.

Dana Phillips: ecocriticism as realism becomes an umpire, judging what's "green" or not.

The ineluctable logic of realism: a flower is more mimetic of nature than any text.

The second wave of ecocriticism orients on place—"environmentality" wherever it can be found. McMurray wants to go further, to "ride madly off in all directions." "All literature is environmental literature." "The recovery of objects of no ethical concern" ought to be the goal of ecocriticism—its objects being "the signifiers of the nonhuman world."

Ecocriticism follows feminism, African-American criticism, etc. Each discourse must move from identification (of gendered thinking, racist thinking) to metatheory. So a book that doesn't mention race is still symptomatic. Quotes Marianne Moore: "Omissions are not accidents."

Political criticism as a model for ecocriticism: it begins with a basic assumption that there is a Real, yet these politics have the power of changing what is real.

The physical world—the "environmental actual"—precedes and includes Marx's horizon, history (that is, of the evolution of the means of production). Production is only the proximate cause of history. "Modes of production have themselves been reified," whether in terms of harnessing production (Communism) or releasing it (capitalism).

But how does the environmental actual get into the poem? A John Muirean view of the literary act: what we select ends up pulling everything else along with it.

The key strategic move comes in decentering man—the posthuman totality. Perhaps utopia is no longer the point? Lawrence Buell: embedment in spatio-temporality is more fundamental than ideology.

Calls for a "synoptic decoding of texts with the environmental actual as the horizon." Presents two preceding modes of synoptic interpretation for comparison: medieval Christian hermeneutics and Jamesonian Marxism. Clever correspondences between the four hierarchical levels of the former (from the basic literal to allegorical, moral, and finally anagogical readings) and of the latter (in which the author-function, social contradictions, class struggle, and History are the corresponding categories).

In "ecocritical holism" the four categories of interpretation are:
- authorial (thematics, style)
- discursive (words, metaphors)
- political (symbolic acts, ideologemes)
- environmental (functional constraints, epistemology, history)

Systems theory, he claims, is a broader and more "generous" governing theory than Marxism.

McMurray picks on Ashbery for working on the discursive level alone, while Frost and Stevens are celebrate for working every level. This hardly seems fair. I'm not sure he's fair to Jameson either. I think many contemporary poets are not simply producing allegories of social conditions, but are instead active investigators and interpreters in their own right, whose work can help us recognize and navigate the social totality. The next level then would be poetry that helps us navigate the environmental actual, of which the social is only a component.

"People and their systems establish themselves against something," and that "something" defines that system.

Prophecies either disaster and collapse or the total technologization of the earth: shows a slide of Coruscant from the Star Wars movies. Star Wars or The Road Warrior: these are our alternatives?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Notes on Poetic Ecologies

14 May 2008

Pierre Lambelin: the city is now more biologically diverse and alive than the countryside, which is like a "desert," subjected to intensive agriculture all the way from Brussels to Marseilles.

Susan Moore on Kristeva: poetic language destroys identity or "accompanies crises in social structures." Ecopoetics emphasizes a semiotic boundary moment between nature and culture. Poetry resists the symbolic/culture/nom du pere.

Kristeva, Tales of Love: "[T]he only infinite space where we might unfurl our love, that is, the infinity of the signifier. Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it."

Harriet Tarlo gives an engaging talk on the ecology of found text as the equivalent of field work - poetry in the landscape. (See, by the way, the important ecopoetics feature that she curated for the most recent issue of HOW2.)

Tarlo's talk reminds me of my idea of ecolage: decaying text so as to bring out the life of the signifier, "opening the language." Talks of "the spirit of citation" (the poet's reluctance to attribute the texts she palimpsests) as connoting the author's love or hatred for the found text: a mode of affect. (She doesn't mention, but I think immediately of Jed Rasula's This Compost.) Homage vs. satire—confronting an oppressive textual world. Acknowledging the otherness of found text, putting its ownership into question.

Describes work of Janis Butler Holm—a poem called "Seminar" that writes through Emerson and Thoreau as "reverse collage," leaving out the nouns so verbs emphasizing insemination and penetration leap to our attention. Other poets mentioned: Tony Lopez, Rachel Blau du Plessis.

Rich Murphy on Blake: he fully describes his utopia, whereas the modernist only gestures at it. Modernists like Williams and Stein seek to erase connotation. Symbolism no longer possible in a capitalist society of continual change—tradition can't stop time, myth no longer appeals to shared, universal experience.

Cites Richard Rorty: we must redescribe our experience in new ways until the next generation is prepared to embrace contingency and change in language. "We are in an epoch of redescribing." Jorie Graham's "Prayer" as an attempt to redescribe religious symbols in Darwinian language; Charles Bernstein's "In Particular" seeks to leave symbols and symbol-making behind.

Murphy seems to be arguing that we're in a moment of postmodern dissolution of "local" symbolisms prior to some new global culture better adapted to this era of change. But isn't that just capitalism tout court? Or the appeal to science: do scientific/ecological discourses still have more prestige/status/non-symbolic meaning than literary discourse at a time when scientific literacy is rapidly declining?

Creating an enclave separate from commodification ("pastoral") or self-conscious play with one's embedment in commodification. This is the gap of difference—and similarity!—thatI've perceived between post-Baudelairean and pastoral poetics. But there's no reason the Arcadian enclave can't be draw as a site for just such self-conscious play (Baudelaire in Arcadia!). Arcadia is the name we give to the autonomous or disinterested space in which we separate from commodification, but it's always a compromised and provisional space.

15 May

Tired today, a layer of plastic over everything. The poet Judith McCombs is talking about her own work. "Stories are what you do when you're not very good at theory." I find my mind wandering, so that the following meditations depend only tangentially on what she says:

I HATE NATURE WRITING. Yes, I love Thoreau and Aldo Leopold; I like Gary Snyder well enough. But the sentimental piety of so much nature writing—the third-rate uncritical romanticism—makes my skin crawl. Give my a little dyspepsia along with the swooning at least, like Edward Abbey (tossing beer cans into Lake Mead). I get impatient too with description, which is what so much of nature writing seems to amount to.

What I do like: Westerns; the social text of "nature"; lucid images woven into more discursive or palimpsestic texts; the dialectic of economy-ecology; deconstructing myths of individualism; nature as that which underwrites and undermines our mode of production; urban pastoral.

Suspicious of Romanticism (but we need the eggs). Ancient suspicion, even fear, of large-scale structures of feeling: nationalism, Zionism, religious fervor. Because no doubt of my own susceptibility to such things.

McCombs: "There's a wilderness behind me, I know! I paid to get out here. It's chock full of dirt."

"we swim among stones"—is she aware of Olson here? Glacial stones, enspirited—enhumaned?—by their mark of otherness, their unhumanness. Whereas in "The Kingfishers," "I hunt among stones" refers to thoroughly human stones—ruins of culture. I prefer that mode, admire it more, because it's less mystical/mystifying. I don't trust an author to single-handedly, priestlike, invest "stone" with mythic significance—to fetishize it for what always feels like one's own spiritual aggrandizement. I also respect the geologist who turns "stone" into glacial specifics of granite and shale—but this too quickly comes to seem arid and boring—"description" again.

I do seem to need and want a spiritual investment in nature—an animism—for it to become interesting. But I'm suspicious of the black box of fetishization that tends to accompany such maneuvers. Solution: break open the box, expose the deus inside the machina. Can an ecopoet show as much self-consciousness about her landscapes as the post-Baudelairean shows about her cityscape? Back once again to constructivst pastoral. (Will I ever get my terms straight?)

Olson interests me because he's interested in myth-construction, not myth reconstruction (separating him from Pound, or Duncan). The agon of the dialectic of enlightenment—the push pull between myth and disenchantment—is right there on the surface of his work.

Of course at some point you stop the weathervane and start writiing.

IMPOSSIBLE not to anthropomorphize nature. Even to describe water as "flowing" humanizes it, makes it more like us. Language is always human, even the most Latinate, "cool" language.

"If you want a story you need evil in the plot." Well, that's why narrative's such an undialectical mode.

Arcadia as staging ground for personae, play with masks, recombinations of desire. But what about the big fish? My intuition all along has been that pastoral provides the unstable pivot between myth and enlightenment, that imaginary balance in which the benefits of both can be enjoyed while either's domination is forestalled. Of course such a landscape may be, may even more easily be, Frank O'Hara's subway and record store, "at hand" to the grass.

10:30 AM: African-American (Re)readings of Nature

Evie Shockley on Ed Roberson and Anne Spencer—the latter apparently more famous for her spectacular garden than for her poetry, which "failed" to engage racial themes and so has aroused little critical interest. But Schockley argues that her garden constitutes a site in which to reconstruct a sense of self after withstanding the corroding effects of racism (Spencer very much an activist).

Similarly, Roberson has endured critical neglect because his nature-centered aesthetic and his conceptual, disjunctive poetics do not fit into existing models for African-American poetry. Roberson challenges the Wordsworthian Romantic/ecopoetics dichotomy, neither idealizing nature nor critiquing human impact on the environment. Instead studies diverse landscapes (Alaska, Pittsburgh) as ecosystems. Finding the negative in nature/wilderness and the urban is as important to him as celebrating their beneficient dimensions—Roberson's means of destabilizing nature/culture.

Yuya Kuchi is the next speaker—he happens to have translated Obama's book Dreams from My Father into Japanese. His talk revists Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden and talks about black slaves as both a version of the machine (they "process" nature for their masters) and as victims of a highly rationalized slavery systems that itself constitutes a machine. "Black machinery in the white garden."

For many blacks, then, nature/the countryside has been associated with bondage and mechanization, whereas the city comes to be associated with freedom, economic opportunity, and the organics of authenticity. If you're "really black" you're from the inner city.

I ask Evie: Does poetry like Roberson's put the very concepts of "authenticity" and "blackness" into question, or does it simply redistribute these categories?

Evie: Roberson has been described as "post-black" (Obama again!). She sees him as "troubling" the category of blackness, particularly as it was constructed by the Black Arts movement in the 1970s (Roberson's moment of coming to consciousness as a poet).

Thinking now of Hillary Clinton's comment about "hard-working Americans, white Americans" and the implied disparagement of African-American voters as being somehow less valuable, less authentically American. But it ought to be the Republicans getting tripped up by this. Learned today about the Democratic candidate who won a special election to Congress in Mississippi in spite—because?—of Republican efforts to link him to Obama. Also worth noting: Europeans keep buttonholing me at this conference, asking me if I think Obama can win, as if my mere Americanness were enough to grant me oracle status. In a possible abuse of nonexistent agency, I tell them he can.

Noon Gary Snyder panel. Fredrick Brogger argues that Snyder's prose is riddled with culture-specific references that weaken it, whereas his poetry more closely adheres to a deep ecological decentering of the human. This is unconvincing: how is Snyder's poetry any less culturally specific or located than his prose? The "figurative reticence and restraint" that Brogger praises in the poems is something Snyder learned from studying Asian poetry, which of course was also for Pound a major source for a de-rhetorized American poetics. Brogger's is an Orientalist argument, it seems to me. Restraint and humility may be counter-cultural, but they're not a-cultural!

Robin Cheng-Hsing Tsai's paper is called "Gary Snyder and the Nature of Nature," and he gives a terrifically animated performance. A Lacanian reading: holds up a biscuit tin as a means of demonstrating what Lacan means by petit objet a. "For Snyder, the real cannot be divorced from the virtual." A line of Snyder's from Mountains and Rivers Without End: there can be no true hunger without a painting of hunger.

"Healing" vs. "saving"—Snyder rejects the Christian notion of salvation. Contending perhaps with Pound's claim that "when the mind hangs by a grass blade / an ant's forefoot will save you"?

Lacan's Real versus Snyder's.

Josh Weinstein, a sweet guy who I'll hang out with quite a bit, talks about Snyder's poetry as an "ecotone" between the human and nonhuman worlds.

(Arcadia ecotoned in the sense that its shepherds are cultivated verse-speakers embedded in nature. Song resolves or through jouissance relieves the human/non-human tension. But jouissance of course can never be fully contained or controlled! Et in Arcadia ego....)

I get very nervous when people try to extract the human or turn aside toward silence. "Nature communicates itself"? Heidegger again.

Afternoon panel on "urban ecologies" chaired by Jno. Skinner.

W. Mark Giles's talk: "Into the Wild / Into the Crosswalk." An ingenious reading of Kracauer's book vis-a-vis Roland Barthes' death-by-laundry truck on the streets of Paris. Inspired bv a comment posted on the ASLE listserv: if Christopher McCandless had forgotten his wallet and run into a crosswalk and gotten himself run over, Kracauer could have written a book called Into the Crosswalk but no one would have bought it.

Barthes: "There is nothing natural any more—everything is historic." Giles adviser remarked to him that if anyone other than an academic had said that he would have been immediately institutionalized.

Mark hates nature writing too: "I believe society is constructed and nature is not something numinous and other."

Traffic produces risk in urban environments but not the "escape from history" (William Cronon) that wilderness offers. Does Benjamin's flaneur escape from history the same way McCandless tried to? Both responses to alienation. The pastoral of jaywalking? Mark doesn't mention the possibility, but was Barthes perhaps cruising when he died?

Flanerie does seem in some ways to be a pastoral mode—but Olson doesn't fit this model the way O'Hara or Snyder even might. He's not an alienated man of the crowd, but a would-be founding citizen.

Christophe den tandt gives a talk on "urban vitalism." From a vitalist/Whitmanian "web of life" ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry") to the necropolis "City of Dreadful Night" of Thomson. Proposes vitalism as "A mapping device for a world of diminishing resources vs. postructuralist/postmodernist theories of infinite expansion and diversifaction.

What's "natural" about the crowd? Its sublimity? But then we're confined to discussing aesthetic effects.

"the utopian pole of description"—Whitman overcomes disconnected, depressed, or alienated moments—"disintegrated yet part of the scheme."

Does the phrase "death in life" sum up the Gothic? I rather think it does. Paris Spleen: "Horrible life! Horrible city!"

Uncanny vitality of the not alive: of course that's just another incarnation of the uncanny life of the commodity. Its flip side: the paradise of shoppers. A pastoral reaction to this would restore the categories of seeming and being: what's alive seems alive, what seems unalive is that way.

Ma Huaqui is next; his paper and presentation were stolen. "I'll be presenting my paper in absentia—my paper is in absentia." He does a remarkable job.

City as organism but Singapore, as 25 x 40 km. island, is "100 percent urbanized," no open space anywhere.

Singaporean poet Alfian bin la'at's "Autobiography" describes the poet as lacking both a childhood and any contact with nature.

If there's no countryside in Singapore I'd think people would turn to the sea as open space—no?

The human body is the only natural element in the hyperurbanized space.

Jason Wiens is last with a paper on Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Wish I'd written this one. Robertson inverts Empson, he claims, by putting the simple into the complex. Robertson: "The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in a substance called money."

Cites Timothy G. Gray's article, which I've also recently read, on urban pastoral (Snyder and O'Hara, role-playing).

"Under the pavement, pavement." Robertson's irony is difficult to track. Wiens: "An inverted dystopia is not necessarily a dystopia."

It's the urban space that's mutable in Robertson, that plays roles, not the people in that space. But he's reading her more affirmatively than I do. It's true her book ends with a hyperbolic scene of sexual gratification.


That was Thursday—my fullest day at the conference, which set my mind afire. I woke up at 3 AM and wrote down what I believe to be the seeds of my pastoral book—something that will bear at best a family resemblance to the dissertation. But I won't record it here.

More notes will follow.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Revising Severance Songs in Ithaca where they were written, confronting the melancholy gap between the poems and "The Poems," what I'd hoped they'd be. What I wanted: a living document of active perceptions, of my senses—moral, aesthetic, erotic—pricked and stung by events in a time of withdrawal from a darkening world, my time in Ithaca (August 2001 – August 2007). What I've got: a bunch of poems that perhaps sustain a dialogue among themselves, perhaps only chatter and hum. They conceal more than they reveal. But I've tried to follow Berryman's dictum: "hide the pieces, where they may be found."

Reading in Oppen, finding traces in what I've written, what I hoped to write, what stance this book wants to take. From the third part of Daybook II, the first "Pipe-Stem Daybook": “art and political action are in precise opposition in this regard: that it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable; it is difficult to ever prove that political action has been valuable. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case.” And: “art lacks in political action, not action. One does what he is most moved to do” (89). (The italics, according to editor Stephen Cope, indicate handwriting.)

So: the pastoral withdrawal enacted, at times rejected and re-ensued, by the book, a form of action. And if not a politics, not at least an evasion of politics.

These poems began as sonnets: not rhymed, but definitely fourteeners, definitely black rectangular boxes in which bullets of syntax ricochet. Now in revision I am ventilating the boxes, creating stanza breaks, adding spacing. And trying to place them in alignment so that some portion of content gets passed from hand to hand.

Oppen, "A Letter": "[T]here are 'accents' which are WRONG. We, the poets, change the accents, change the spech. We change the speech because we are not explaining, agitating, convincing: we do not write what we already knew before we wrote the poem" (44).

Revision, re-vision, is not then, should not be explication, forcing, and it's my fear of doing this that has kept me from doing more than shuffle the order. But I take a firmer hand now trusting that the book does have a syntax that wants to emerge, and that this syntax knows what I do not yet know. Writing writ large? It's far more difficult than simply writing, generating, which is itself only easy when you're doing it.

Oppen's pastoral, in the essay "The Mind's Own Place": Flowers stand for simple and undefined human happiness and are frequently mentioned in all political circles.... But the good life, the thing wanted for itself, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody's politics, or defined wrongly" (36).

The poems move from bewilderment to wildness. Oppen quotes Duncan on the same page: "I mean, of course, that happiness itself is a forest in which we are bewildered, turn wild, or dwell like Robin Hood, outlawed and at home." From wildness toward a vision of the lineaments of gratified desire. Berryman again: "There ought
to be a law against Henry. / —Mr Bones: there is." What is that law? Who wrote it?

Revising in 2008. I believe we are awakening from a long nightmare and into responsibility, which may be more terrible than a nightmare. For the world, long past withdrawing from, may also be past our healing. At the Poetic Ecologies conference, speaking of the time of peak oil and the end of cheap energy, Andrew McMurray said, “The world is about to get a lot bigger.” That may, in the end, be our best hope. And yet we will still want to speak to each other, face to face, whenever we can—we must. Our capacity for empathy must grow in direct proportion to the shrinking grip of our technology. Are we brave enough to be that vulnerable? Are even poets brave enough?

Oppen's "Statement on Poetics": "[T]here are things we believe or want to believe or think we believe that will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem." And: "Prosody is a language, but it is a language that tests itself. Or it tests itself in music--I think one may say that. It tests the relations of things: it carries the sequence of disclosure." And: "actualness is prosody." And: "it is certainly possible to mock poetry just as there are times when one is sick of himself" (49). The man could say a lot on a single page.

Revision, then, is a test of these poems. And a test of this poet, who's too often relied on fluency. (Daybook II:I: "The word is the burden, the words are the burden, of the line which it must bear ^lift^ up into meaning" [69].) But as Oppen also says, Heideggerianly, "Those who merely chatter await an interruption that will save them from themselves" (49-50).

Here is Ithaca, no longer home. Unless one can be at home in an interruption. From "Twenty-Six Fragments":
I am not sure whether or not
I would like to live altogether
In the forest of poetry
Its mystery and its clarity
I feel he is leading me through my own poems, Virgil-like, though there's nothing particularly Oppen-esque or Objectivist about these poems. They are, rather, small specimens of postmodern baroque. But when I've read all the daybooks I feel somehow I'll understand better what I'm trying to achieve. And then maybe these poems will find their home.

Sadie is the wildcard, a genuine interruption (but Oppen's notes lend themselves nicely to the fragmentary reading sessions that parenthood demands). A new view, a string to string beads upon. It can't be the same book it was, thank goodness.

Cavafy: "Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you wouldn't have set out."

Hoping she still has something to give me.

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