Monday, January 31, 2011

Arcadia Ego, or: We Have Always Been Pastoral

Joyelle McSweeney continues to elaborate her theory of necropastoral in her latest post, a summation of the necrotic yet vital qualities she identifies with that "defunct, anachronistic, dead, imperial and imperialistic literary form." I think that's a fair characterization of how pastoral has been used—there is most definitely a pastoral ideology "contrived to represent separation, quarantine, timelessness, stasis, protection from upset and death." At the same time, it's an inherently unstable genre, which has demonstrated self-consciousness about its own project from the beginning. Consider the first of Virgil's Eclogues, in which two shepherds talk about current events. One has become a refugee, his land seized by the state to be given to demobilized soldiers; the other has, through his poetry, won at least provisional reposession of his land through the direct intervention of the sovereign, whom he has caught in a nostalgic mood:
In Rome I found the young man in whose honor
We sacrifice at our altars every month.
He said, "Go feed your flocks as in the old days;
Herdsmen, raise your cattle as you used to."
(David Ferry, trans.)
The uncanny quality in this eclogue is the absence of jealousy or political friction between the dispossessed Meliboeus and that fortunate senex Tityrus; "It's not that I'm envious, but full of wonder." The dialogue becomes Meliboeus' elegy for the life with flocks and fields that he will know no more, and ends with Tityrus' invitation to linger for at least one more night as his guest, for, "Already there's smoke you can see from the neighbor's chimneys / And the shadows of the hills are lengthening as they fall. " Et in Arcadia ego: not just physical death, but social and economic death, are part and parcel of the pastoral experience, and Tityrus has no guarantee that "the young man" in Rome won't change his mind tomorrow about his status.

This possibility is elaborated in the ninth eclogue, which essentially retells the story of the first from the dispossessed shepherd's point of view. "A stranger came / To take possession of our farm, and said: / 'I own this place; you have to leave this place.'" To which his interlocutor, the naive Lycidas (whose name Milton will take for his great pastoral elegy of that title) responds:
But I was told Menalcas with his songs
Had saved the land, from where those hills arise
To where they slope down gently to the water,
Near those old beech trees, with their broken tops.
"Yes, that was the story," Moeris replies, "but what can music do / Against the weapons of soldiers?" And once again elegy, that nearest neighbor to pastoral (and isn't "pastoral elegy" very nearly a synonym for "necropastoral"?) takes hold as the two shepherds sing sorrowfully of a land that seems always already lost: "Time takes all we have away from us." The master poet, Menalcas, who was powerless against political violence, remains offstage in this eclogue, like Godot; "The time for singing will be when Menalcas comes" is the poem's last line.

It's impossible to read these poems and feel assured of pastoral as the perfect fantasy of the locus ameonus or virga intacta that it presents itself as in its most ideological forms (the Marlboro Man, for instance, though of course even his iconography has become infected by death). Consider, too, Leo Marx's characterization of American pastoral in particular as the conjuration of a "middle landscape," ideally situated between a hostile wilderness and the corruptions of capitalism. But his book The Machine in the Garden is a close examination of how the boundary between the two is actually a wavery and porous line. Its iconic scene is an excerpt from Nathaniel Hawthorne's notebook, in which a forest revery is interrupted, then reconstituted, by the sound of a locomotive thundering not so very far away.

In Deleuzeian terms, a pastoral poem deterritorializes or rhizomes (if that can be a verb) the landscape it reflects, but the most interesting such poems don't close the loop through an authoritative reterritorialization. Instead the represented landscape remains open, infected if you like, by the visible passage of the reader's desire to flee complexity/multiplicity/the city/death. McSweeney's necropastoral, in my view, is valuable insofar as it's an updating of the pastoral to be responsive to the most current environmental conditions (taking late capitalism in this sense as the environment or "climate" of contemporary poetry). I'm especially interested in her notion of necropastoral as a means of processing (or maybe "confronting" is a better word) "contamination," both in its ideological senses (the racist pastoral fantasy of the anti-immigration America First crowd) and its biochemical one. As Joyelle puts it, "the necropastoral is the toxic double of our eviscerating, flammable contemporary world, where avian flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, toxic contamination via industrial waste, hormones in milk, poisons leaching out of formaldehyde FEMA trailers, have destroyed the idea of the bordered or bounded body and marked the porousness of the human body as its most characteristic quality."

I wonder if Joyelle has read any Bruno Latour, who has introduced the concept of the "quasi-object" to ecological thought: a social "object" which is also kinda-sorta a subject, of which toxic entities like hormones in milk are pardigmatic examples. This would be the darkest example yet of necropastoral, in that it parodically achieves the reconciliation between subject and object, self and other, human and nature, that is at the root of the pastoral fantasy. The (contaminated) body becomes indistinguishable from its (contaminated) environment. It's difficult to be sanguine about this from the perspective of normative environmentalism, but it's exciting allegorically, as a means of imaginatively contesting fundamentally undemocratic fantasies of purity (something ecology at its most misanthropic is fully capable of manifesting).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Fourier Series - The Movie

I am nigh-ecstatic to be able to direct you to this "kinetic translation" of my book Fourier Series, designed and programmed by its publisher—nay, its wizard—William Gillespie of Spineless Books:

Fourier Électronique


Also, this is a good time to announce to all who might care that I will be at AWP in DC next week. There are a couple of Tupelo/Severance Songs related events of interest:

Tupelo Press Off-Site Reception

Petits Plats Restaurant
2653 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington DC 20008
(202) 518-0018

Join us at Petits Plats (close to the conference hotel) for drinks, hors d'oeuvres, and short readings by a few of our 2010/2011 authors. Join us in a toast to Tupelo's authors and staff for eleven years of dynamic publishing!

Friday, February 4
6:15 - 8:30 pm

With short readings by (in order of appearance):

Ilya Kaminsky

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Daniel Khalastchi

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Ellen Doré Watson

Kristin Bock

Michael Chitwood

Kazim Ali

Rebecca Dunham

Stacey Waite

Dan Beachy-Quick

Joshua Corey

Megan Snyder-Camp

Please RSVP for this event:
Send an email with the number in your party to
Please put "AWP Reception" in your subject line,
and feel free to bring a guest.

I'll be signing advance copies of the book at the Tupelo Books table on Saturday at 11:30 AM, alongside Megan Snyder-Camp whose new book is called The Forest of Sure Things.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Joyelle McSweeney's Necropastoral

As you might suppose, I'm completely fascinated by Joyelle McSweeney's recent posts on "necropastoral" up at Montevidayo. It's a little unclear to me as to whether she's talking about pastoral as an always-already uncanny undead genre, outside and yet adjacent to the polis ("the temporal and geographical sureties of the court, the urbs, the imperium itself"), or if she isn't suggesting a sub- or paragenre called necropastoral, with its own distinct aesthetic characteristics. The former seems to be the case in her original post, while the fascinating post on Sylvia Plath suggests the latter, and might lead in a direct line therefore to the necropastoral aspects of gurlesque.

It makes perfect sense to read Plath's Ariel as a kind of parody or burlesque of the pastoral, when the latter is constructed as the reservoir of "natural" values. I'm especially struck by the image of the infant's mother dissolving into the ambient environment in "Morning Song"; Joyelle calls it "a total mediumicity in which Art moves from the infant to the speaker, from the infant into the material surround, creating the body of the poem." This "mediumicity" seems very similar to Timothy Morton's notion of ambience as the tendency of environmental writing in general to "re-mark" the boundary between subject and object, transgressing that boundary even, without ever erasing it. For Morton the Freudian "oceanic feeling" or the Emersonian transparent eye-ball with its ecstatic "I am nothing, I see all" seems to be fundamentally ideological, not an erasing of the barrier but a manifestation of the subject's desire to swallow the object whole. For Plath, I imagine, the poem read as pastoral highlights how that genre has been gendered as a playground for the inviolable masculine subject but strips the feminine object-subject bare; the mother-speaker of the poem is dissolved by the infantile demand that she become the feminized object-atmosphere of "nature." The subject here is swallowed by her own object-hood, "cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown." And the poem, and the book as a whole, is a luridly violent rebellion against the demands pastoral makes for women to become more-and-less than human, more-and-less than sexual, more-and-less than alive.

I'm reminded of Lisa Robertson's "How Pastoral: A Manifesto" and her claim there that "I needed a genre for when I go phantom"--phantom in this context bringing us very close to Joyelle's necropastoral (though it's a notably less embodied sort of word, and there's a definite aesthetic distance between the cerebral, even Apollonian necropastoral of a book like The Weather or The Men versus the Dionysian variety embraced by Plath and the poets I associate with the gurlesque. But I need to think more about the larger, rather seductive claims Joyelle seems to be making about pastoral in general. Necropastoral seems rather more specific than "postmodern pastoral" or even "avant-pastoral," the terms I've grown accustomed to playing with; it would seem to go beyond a pastoral that merely foregrounds its own artifice, the better to play with the tradition of turning nature into a standing reserve for sovereign authority and cultural norms. Is it a zombie pastoral, the pleasure of the walking dead in devouring brains, the hypersublime viral pleasure of mindless multiplication, unlife, earth without world?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

You Villain Touch; or, the Body of Genre

In my first meeting with this semester's starry-eyed Introduction to Creative Writing students, I played a little game where each student shares a word that they like and another word that they despise. It's a functional icebreaker and, as far as the favorite words go, also serves as a simple diagnostic tool, dividing the class roughly into the aspirational (words like "hope" and "individual") and the ear-driven ("indubitably" is the one I recall). The negative words are more interesting. After three different students independently came up with "moist" (a word that occurred last semester as well), I began writing down the disliked words on the board:
Another disfavored word that I didn't write down sums the rest up, both sonically and in terms of meaning: grotesque. Each word is heavy on sibilants and, except for slice, hard C and T sounds. And each describes an object failing to maintain its boundaries, spilling liquid (moist, secreted), crumbling (crusty), or dissevering (slice). Words that conjure disintegrating bodies. Words that make your flesh creep—a phrase that in itself conjures that crucial aspect of the grotesque, the uncanny aliveness and strangeness of your own body, which is coterminous yet refuses to play along with the social and psychological boundaries of the self.

Thinking a lot today about the grotesque as a genre, or anti-genre, in light of various books on my radar. In the senior seminar I'm co-teaching this spring with Davis Schneiderman, our chosen texts are William Gillespie's new novel (but perhaps I should borrow Geraldine Kim's coinage, Povel), Keyhole Factory; and the much-noted anthology edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics. I'm also reading the brand new collection edited by Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (in which my esteemed colleague Bob Archambeau has a useful essay on the Victorian pretensions on the can-poetry-matter crowd). Last but not least, a book that does not yet exist but which G.C. Waldrep and I are slowly laboring into being: The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. All these things form a constellation in my mind on the question of boundaries in American poetry, and in poems themselves.

Touch me not: one of the early warnings, or irresistible come-ons, in the English literary tradition, when it comes to touching:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
This famous sonnet of Sir Thomas Wyatt's, an imitation or riff on Petrarch's "Rime 190" is widely understood to be an allegory about the poet's desire for Anne Boleyn. It's a poem about impossible pursuit, partly because pursuit is barred by the power of the sovereign (Caesar, aka King Henry VIII) and the Ovidian transformations of Boleyn, who takes the form of an animal (a deer, "an hind") but also, in the poem's most famous line, something even more uncatchable: "Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind"). The poet yearns to touch, catch, and "hold" the elusive beloved but she is "wild for to hold, though [she] seem tame." To hunt this hind means to risk "running wild" in the sense of total dissolution of the self; for the revenge of the sovereign must be total in nature. Wyatt's social death, his death at court, would precede his inevitable physical death should he be caught in the act of sexual treason. The power of eros becomes the eros of power, with this difference: unable to assume the power of Caesar (itself a power greater than any single body can contain), the power of touch threatens annihilation; and yet such touch, clearly, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

In the American tradition there's overt celebration of touch, mingling, pressing the flesh, but this celebration masks a profound ambivalence. Walt Whitman is surely the poet laureate of touch and its Dionysisan tendency to blur and bend the principium individuationis:
Mine is no callous shell;
I have instant conductors all over me, whether I pass or stop;
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy;
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.
From that "harmlessly through me" (implying a fundamental stability of self: "Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am") we pass quickly to touch as peak experience, the jouissance of "about as much as I can stand." And the section that follows is even darker:
s this then a touch? quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself;
On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,
Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,
Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial,
Depriving me of my best, as for a purpose,
Unbuttoning my clothes, holding me by the bare waist,
Deluding my confusion with the calm of the sunlight and pasture-fields,
Immodestly sliding the fellow-senses away,
They bribed to swap off with touch, and go and graze at the edges of me;
No consideration, no regard for my draining strength or my anger;
Fetching the rest of the herd around to enjoy them a while,
Then all uniting to stand on a headland and worry me.

The sentries desert every other part of me;
They have left me helpless to a red marauder;
They all come to the headland, to witness and assist against me.

I am given up by traitors;
I talk wildly—I have lost my wits—I and nobody else am the greatest traitor;
I went myself first to the headland—my own hands carried me there.

You villian touch! what are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat;
Unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me.
Many commentators see this moment in the poem as a moment of masturbation and not the nigh-unbearable contact with another's flesh. But this is nearly irrelevant to the larger question of the power of "villain touch" to destabilize the self and threaten it with foundering. Je est un autre, as Rimbaud says, and one's own body (Whitman's queer body) may be as "autre" as another's.

Or as Jeff Goldblum's mad scientist puts it in The Fly, "The flesh makes you crazy."

Flash forward a hundred years to the Confessional poets. And when I think about what's most compelling about their work, what makes them sexy--there's no better word--it's not the dubious glamour of insanity ("My mind's not right") but the ways in which Berryman and Lowell and Plath admit the treacherous terrain of tremulous bodies in contact with other bodies into their poems. Consider for example Berryman's own "touch me not" poem, "Dream Song 4":
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact that her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
"You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance." I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. -- Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls. --

Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast . . . The slob beside her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
--Mr. Bones: there is.

The seemingly indifferent and self-possessed object that is the desired woman's "compact & delicious body" has the effect of shaking Henry's always precarious subjectivity all to pieces; "fainting with interest" (the first word suggests a Keatsian "swoon"; the latter word suggesting that we are very far from any Kantian idealized aestheticiation of the body-object; Henry's interest in her is decidedly culinary), he is torn between the violently opposed actions of "springing on her" (closing the absolute distance between subject and object) or "falling at her little feet" (abjectifying the self while placing the beloved on a properly Petrarchan pedestal, an action which notably sustains rather than terminates her inaccessibility). Villain touch in this poem is all mental, all fantasy, but it's still powerful enough to shake this speaker apart, calling his minstrel-doppelgänger Mr. Bones into existence in the final strophe, a mark of Henry's habitually split self. "There ought to be a law against Henry / ...there is." It's Henry's identity as transgressor, as transgressed, as divided by painful (erotic or deathly, or both; see "Dream Song 382") contact with others, that makes him and The Dream Songs so memorable.

The question of genre and the comparative fleshliness or bony spiritualization of American poetry connects, I think, directly to this question of contact between subject and object; or in broader national terms, the divide between democratic melting pot and xenophobic nationalism. Of course it was Lowell who gave us the metaphor of "the raw and the cooked"' in poetry, that is so weirdly apt to this question of the role of the flesh, the grotesque and carnivalesque. Lowell meant, broadly, the "raw" poetry of Ginsberg and the New Americans versus the "cooked," more traditionally formal poetry nurtured by the New Criticism. He was referring primarily to poetic form, but as with any strong metaphor, the vehicle of raw and cooked can overpower the tenor of form and bring poetry, abruptly, into more or less sublimated contact with the flesh.

I am tempted to be contrarian here and to argue that, just as Berryman and Lowell are more preoccupied with the raw terrors of embodiment than you might expect, so too is a poet like Ginsberg surprisingly concerned with bodily integrity and the construction of an impermeable subjectivity: the egotistical sublime. The phrase of course evokes John Keats and his notorious characterization of "the camelion poet" as boundariless, permeable body: "A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other Body." And Ginsberg, who demonstrates Whitmanian sympathy with others in "Howl," does not go so far as Whitman does as to risk dissolution; his "I" exists in ambiguously distanced relation to "the best minds of my generation" who engage in Dionysian ecstasies of gay sex and drugs, and which only comes back into the poem as self-in-touch-and-at-risk with the appearance or reappearance of Carl Solomon: "Ah Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe and now you're really in the total animal soup of time." That's a terrifically ambiguous phrase as far as Lowell's metaphor goes--total animal soup, isn't that somehow raw and cooked? When we are "in the soup" we are in chaotic contact with the heterogenous, and in danger of being eaten besides! But it's Carl who's in the soup, not Ginsberg, who steps back in the second section for his jeremiad against "Moloch" and who only fully inhabits the poem as an I that is "with you in Rockland / where you're madder than I am"; but that repeated phrase, "I'm with you in Rockland" only serves to reiterate the speaker's separation from the "madder" Solomon, who only threatens actual contact "in my dreams" at the poem's conclusion: " in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across / America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night." To my cottage: a strikingly pastoral image evocative of Yeats and Pound in Ireland or, perhaps more pertinently, the person from Porlock who's arrived just in time to prevent Coleridge from dissolving into the total animal soup of "Kublai Khan."

I see that I've yielded to temptation; I see also that pastoral has come up, as I knew it would. Because pastoral is that fantasy of subject-object, culture-nature reconciliation, though in actual pastorals the supposed reconciliation is firmly on the subject's terms (as in Romantic and Transcendentalist pastoral) or more rarely the object's (as in the Objectivist pastoral of an Oppen or a Francis Ponge, "taking the side of things" [Les partis pris des choses]). One might say that an anthology like American Hybrid takes a pastoral position by constructing a wishful "middle landscape" between raw and cooked poetries (editor Cole Swensen, curiously the only of the two editors engaged by the critics in The Monkey and the Wrench, calls it "a thriving center of alterity"). We can imagine a hybrid itself as "raw" or "cooked," with the "cooked" end of the continuum implying synthesis and blending, while "the raw" preserves the individual identities of its components in what I envision as a lightly dressed salad. In general the anthology's critics see it as a cooked anthology that's pretending to be raw--that it represents a re-inscription of white mythology, constructing an imaginary exterior (and superior) to the fraught and intrinsically political zone of contention that is po-biz, from which so many poets and critics regardless of aesthetic position seem to want to escape.

What has this got to do with that villain touch? Everything, if the yearning for touch ("Contact! Contact!" Thoreau cries) weren't always in the Western tradition countered by fear of touch, by our dim or acute suspicion that our boundaries, our bodies, are porous and penetrable. ("Secure our borders!" the Tea Party cries, which like all such movements seeks not political power but the end of politics as such, not just "politics as usual.") To identify with the porous and penetrable is to take a step toward the grotesque (consider the drag queen), inverting powerfully gendered and hierarchical assumptions about who gets to be a speaking (lyric) subject. When young women speak from the uncanny position of the object, as in the gurlesque; or when flarfists make deliberately bad-tasting animal soup out of kitsch; or when the writers associated with New Narrative (I have in mind a loose confederation of largely Bay Area authors, the sons and daughters of Kathy Acker, many of whom are represented in Biting the Error) tell baroque stories of desiring machines and bodies-without-organs; or when almost anyone takes the trouble to translate poems written almost anywhere else in the world (the most intimate and intimidating form of poetic touch, it seems, for American readers)--then we are exploring and exploding, without dreaming of erasing, that terrifying and seductive boundary, permeable and mortal as human skin.

Olson again crystallizes things for me, return us to "Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)." "No Greek will be able / to discriminate my body"--Olson rejecting the philosophical tradition of humanism running at least from Socrates to Descartes, reducing his body to res extensa. "I have this sense / that I am one / with my skin." A sense refined, I think, by Olson's experience among the Maya, whom as he told Creeley seemed to hold their bodies differently from Americans: "it's so very gentle, so granted, the feel, of touch -- none of that pull, away, which, in the States caused me, for so many years, the deepest sort of questions about my own structure." The return to the body--or not the body, but a body, what a body, Olson's gigantic body, Maximus, mountainous locus of difference. It's easy to read the last lines of this poem as the return of the egotistical sublime, but:
Plus this—plus this:

that forever the geography

which leans in

on me I compell

backwards I compell Gloucester

to yield, to



is this
The landscape (the landscape!) exerts its pressure on Maximus, "leans in" on him, transmits through him a compulsion on Gloucester, not because he is artifex, Mussolini-manque, but because he has a citizen-body, and to be such a transmitter, in contact, on that boundary between self and other, subject and object, well. "Polis / is this."

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.

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