Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Recruit

One of my back-burner projects for the past couple of years is a memoir or a series of linked autobiographical essays about my years of quiet desperation trying to be a writer while living in New Orleans in the mid-90s. Green Mountains Review has just published some excerpts in their online edition.

Read them here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


What a pen can make: lines. The sea sees nothing. The computer heats up, rendering. What was given to Henry James: names. Makes a world. 

They were neither of them saints. Him especially, but also especially, her. But what makes a saint? To have stood for something, and to have suffered for it. Isn't that enough? Isn't that, at least, something?

The artist chooses his constraints: that is his freedom. But the philosopher? Is she not obligated, simply, to the truth? And thus is the least free of all? The philosopher does not invent, even when she does invent: a voice, a character, a concept. The philosopher constructs a discourse, an elaborate machine for unearthing what she discovers in the day or night. She lives in the brilliant aftermath of intuition. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.[1]

Begin again. In a new spirit of pragmatism, asking not why I am interested in vital materialism, in modernist poetics, in the dialectic of innocence and experience, in the phenomenological and ecological implications of taking language and the imagination as things that obtain, that exist. Accepting that I am interested in these things, that they are a matter of my temperament, its line or lines of flight. Asking, instead, what this assemblage of interests can do.

The idea has come to me that I want to do now is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes.[2]

In my own poetry this assemblage empowers a new practice, a practical poetics to be lived with and explored. Such a poetics undermines the impulse toward the made and returns one’s attention to making. To be always beginning again, with the reader, asking what it is in the moment that poems do.

Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea.[3]

Poetry is a practice of magic, of incantation, “a matter of disturbance, entrance and passion, rather than abracadabra.”[4] A speech in which the speaker is fully embedded, fully committed. A voice committed to the moment, to creating and being created by the otherness of what the poem includes.

Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional.[5]

It is false, unreal, merely conventional: this business of the realist: how some poetry and much scholarship encases and thwarts experience. In their insistent proprieties they obscure our vision of the actual, what William James called “pure experience.”[6] The actual may be a poem; it may be the western black rhino, declared extinct last week; it may be my daughter; it may be a feeling or a lure for feeling. We lose the actual when we lose the adventure of imagination.

The world of wonders is limited at last to the parent’s will (for will prospers where imagination is thwarted); intellectual appetites become no more than ambitions; curious minds become consciences; love, hatred, affection, and cruelty cease to be responses and become convictions. And the adventure of life becomes a self-improvement course.[7]

We can, in other words, know nothing in advance. The poem lies before us. We are implicated if we write it, if we read it. We are willing subjects in the wrong.

There is a stone chair on a dais. Seeing it is the King’s chair or, even, in some dreamings of this dream, finding myself a lonely king in that chair, there is no one rightly there. A wave of fear seizes me. All things have gone wrong and I am in the wrong. Great doors break from their bars and hinges, and, under pressure, a wall of water floods the cavern.[8]

I am interested in noir. In a noir narrative the protagonist, who is usually some sort of detective, plunges confidently into the heart of an expanding darkness, only to discover that the darkness is inside himself—that he may even be its origin. This is the story of Oedipus and the story of Chinatown. Noir reverses the dialectic of innocence and experience. The experienced detective is undone by his adventure, confronted with his own complicity in evil. He detects himself. A terrible innocence is born. This terrible moment, the moment at the very end of the noir narrative, is ours.

I discover myself on the verge of the usual mistake.[9]

But we can bear in, imagining the darkness rather than willing it.

Medicine can cure the body. But soul, poetry, is capable of living in, longing for, choosing illness. Only the most fanatic researcher upon cancer could share with the poet the concept that cancer is a flower, an adventure, an intrigue with life.[10]

“Ecological politics has a noir form,” Timothy Morton writes. “We start by thinking we can ‘save’ something called ‘the world’ ‘over there,’ but end up realizing that we ourselves are implicated. This is the solution to beautiful soul syndrome: reframing our field of activity as one for which we ourselves are formally responsible, even guilty.”[11] We are or ought to be fanatic cancer researchers, and the cancer is in us. Is us. We are caught up in the Anthropocene. We are caught up in an intrigue with life.

Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry—by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing?[12]

I have written a novel called Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy. It is a sentimental title for a narrative that struggles to emerge on the other side of sentimentality, as the protagonist, in her struggle with the past that composes her, tries to survive her own innocence of that past. The phrase “beautiful soul” is Hegelian (schöne Seele): “The beautiful soul maintains a split between self and world, an irresolvable chasm created by the call of conscience.... [it] cannot see that the evil it condemns is intrinsic to its existence—indeed, its very form as pure subjectivity is this evil.”[13]

The poets succeeding by simplifying: practically everything is left out.[14]

Poems are not mimetic; they do not represent; they show nothing of states of affairs or states of mind. Poetry is the by-product of what Karen Barad calls “intra-action,” “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action.”[15] The poet is one agent entangled with innumerable other agents: black rhinos, Congressional Republicans, tornadoes, John Keats, hay fever, words. The particular moment of entanglement is the poet’s experience. The record of that experience is the poem; liable, as Ezra Pound said of The Cantos, to carry “the defects inherent in a record of struggle.”[16]

The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it: what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov—the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskolnikov.[17]

The poem itself is not mimetic but the struggle to produce it is microcosmic; as Whitehead says, “Each task of creation is a social effort, employing the whole universe.” The defects of the poem mark its suffering of incompatible facts. “Insistence on birth at the wrong season is the trick of evil.” Whitehead follows this claim with a gimcrack theodicy, assuring us that “in the advance of the world, particular evil facts are finally transcended.”[18] One can accept this only in the spirit of Kafka’s mordant remark that there is plenty of hope for God, but not for us. Yet what Keats calls “the poetical Character” must participate this hope if is not to be overwhelmed, or to retreat to the guilty noncommitment of the beautiful soul. is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys life and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.[19]

Poetic practice is a pragmatism of impure subjectivity. The poem’s I is embedded in, produces, and is produced by what it sees. “Environment” does not exist. There is a vibration and an overlapping and a revision. The poem ends, but the adventure does not. If the adventurer encounters evil, he tarries with it and becomes it for a while. “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.”[20] That is his obedience to the struggle.

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—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.[21]

Keats is wrong about the unchangeable attributes of things, since all things are themselves entangled and intra-acting agents. He is right that a poet is willing to enter consciously and of his own free will into the contract of intra-action that binds the rest of us all unwilling, since we are blind to it. That blindness is what makes us poetical creatures of impulse. The poet’s vision makes blindness palpable. What Duncan called, “a little endarkenment.”[22]

I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate. That is what I want to do in “The Moths.” It must include nonsense fact, sordidity: but made transparent.[23]

Moths are nocturnal insects, except when they are not. There is nothing so strange nor seemingly nonsensical as the luna moth, which molts five times in caterpillar form, eating the leaves of black walnut trees, until finally cocooning and emerging with a wingspan of four and a half inches. The luna moth has no mouth; its career as a gourmand is done. It lives for about a week, flying only by night (unlike the diurnal sphinx moth, the infant moth, the Panamanian tiger moth), the females releasing a chemical that attracts the males to mate with them. Then they lay several hundred eggs, and then they die. Moths are very common, except when they are not. Luna moths are endangered in many areas due to pollution from herbicides and insectisides, as well as habitat loss. Is this saturated? Is this transparent? Is the luna moth, selected for the purposes of this essay very nearly at random, something with which I am entangled in 2013, on the November night after a day of unseasonable warmth and torrential rain, during which at least seventy-seven tornadoes caused five reported deaths and untold property damage in the state of Illinois where I live? The lives of moths are fantastically brief. Does this writing bear the defects of a record of my struggle to imagine an order that is not an illusion or bad faith but the order of intra-action, of noir, of innocence?

For she stood upon the threshold of an art where she was to take her place with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in the adventure of the higher imagination, in the full risk of the poem in which divine, human, and animal orders must be revealed.[24]

The lives of moths are fantastically brief.

Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body.[25]

Innocence survives experience, through experience. The innocence of the moth in its mouthless struggle for life. Of the poem.

Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead.[26]

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, pg. 244.
[2] Virginia Woolf, diary entry of 28 September 1928.
[3] Woolf, op. cit.
[4] Robin Blaser quoted in Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus, pg. 165.
[5] Woolf, op. cit.
[6] William James, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” in Essays in Radical Empiricism, pg. 4.
[7] Robert Duncan, “Pages from a Notebook,” A Selected Prose, pg. 16.
[8] Duncan, The H.D. Book, pg. 151.
[9] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855).
[10] Duncan, “Pages from a Notebook,” A Selected Prose, pg. 15.
[11] Morton, Ecology without Nature, pg. 187.
[12] Woolf, op. cit.
[13] Morton, pg. 118.
[14] Woolf, op. cit.
[15] Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, pg. 33.
[16] Pound, Guide to Kulchur, pg. 135.
[17] Duncan, The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, pg. 669.
[18] Whitehead, Process and Reality, pg. 223.
[19] John Keats, Selected Letters, pgs. 147-148
[20] Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.
[21] Keats, pg. 148.
[22] C.f. Stephen Collis and Graham Lyons, eds., Reading Duncan Reading: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation, pg. 64.
[23] Woolf, op. cit.
[24] Duncan, The H.D. Book, pg. 210.
[25] Woolf, “The Death of the Moth,” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, pg. 4.
[26] Ibid, pg. 6.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

From an old notebook

The camera preserves looking--the life of the poem.

Can't expel the image without an image
terror face
Streaked the face and the face's frame 
Soot on the lens, incurved eye
Lips parted the teeth rendered
White and black open to be torn
The me of it the late-night regarder
Alone in the house with vintage paranoia
Letter by letter I seek the image
Unconveyed by the phrase "lidless eye"
Unable to flinch
In the face of that
Unable to flinch
Blow to the face

Blunt instrument the eye cannot choose but accept


Great fucking title for a book:



My daughter materializes time for me in a new way: she grows so rapidly that I too must, it seems, be growing as rapidly, or anyway changing, aging: as she discovers language I discover language; as she staggers on suddenly overlong legs so do I stagger. Except I'm used to it, I scarcely notice my own becoming, I think I'm standing still. But time has me in its savage grip for sure. It flourishes us both for now, but a tipping point will come and no doubt sooner than I expect. Or sooner than I'll realize. 


Guy at cafe talking about Cleveland as a place that "if you live there, you have a reason for living there"; mentions DFW's novel about it (Broom of the System?) and says that Joyce would have written about Cleveland both as Midwestern oasis and also as a backward and venal place. 


A.R. Ammons: "you sit there discussing the theory / of poetry as if you were saved: / meanwhile, a big-mouthed cock / is creeping up on your ass" like "Lawrence's snake"


carefully fail
at every
task except
the highest

only the essential is material
only the material is essential 


Adjustment to the film based on the anticipated desires of the "world audience."

From the distant square oompah music, fat froggy tones of horns, kettle drums, accordions taking the air. 

We haven't lost, I said. We've won. Roche is finished. DeGaulle is finished. The unions are getting everything they've asked for.
The why does it feel like losing?
The victory rally. The thousands of shining faces, floating in a sea of banners, slogans, lights. The man of the hour, the bearer of our hopes, raising his hands to receive our silence. The silence before he speaks goes on and on. Stretched out on the ecstatic rack of time, we, breathless, hearing only each other's stillness, are listening, leaning, hand in spontaneous hand. His lips are parted. A shout that will not be. 
Let me live here ever. 


shiver   overcharged
by narrative
bootblacks.   mistress quicklys
overwrought    by night
streaming video from subcontinents
overreaching.   overt hands
fingertips flying up to brush
metal seams of a hull
dark down there
& breathless.    mutineers
parts of the whole
satelite whirligigs   sedan chairs carried
into the muck of speech


The goat's colored footsteps


Outbound 1/26/10

Flatiron sky flies in wedges
"my iron lung"
Front to back two ladies
Speaking Spanish por que
A flag hovers to my left
Over Evanston's hotel de ville
And where does the gravel on top of shelter roofs come from

Fighting about nothing you
Sleep well all night
Gym bag between my feet
Like an offering

Health care's dead
It's alive!

Little dogs walk
Their feet can't keep up with 'em
Benadette Mayer writes her couplets
At midnight

As I staple together
Ends of the working


Rust-red pigeon
What's in it for you

Hey everybody!
Let's go ahead and pathologize
The last several months
Count weeks
And have a few beers


The black relic hung
Something to savor
The black relic hung
Crossroads of the years
The black relic hung
Forgotten LP
The black relic hung
The black relic hung


shoes make broken glass OK

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

ARK and angels

Just back from reading with Norman Finkelstein at the Green Lantern Gallery / Corpse Space in Wicker Park, in which I tested out a manuscript-in-progress with the working title Hannah and the Master. It's extremely loosely based on the Martin Heidegger-Hannah Arendt romance and I can't tell at this stage whether it's poetry, fiction, a very strange essay, or perhaps a play. It went over well, but that's not what I wanted to remark on--I wanted to remark on this:

Yep--a hot-off-the-presses copy of the new edition of Ronald Johnson's ARK, straight from the hands of editor Peter O'Leary. It has page numbers! And an utterly gorgeous monochrome design. And it has been sensibly given the low low price of $17.95, so that there's simply no excuse not to buy a copy, and copies for all your friends, and to assign it to your students.

Also worth remarking is this:

That's a copy of Joel Felix's new book Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die, the first release from Peter's new small press Verge Books. It looks exquisite and of a piece with Peter's numinous sensibility. Here's a poem from the book:

Least Wind


in least wind
yarrow stalks
dippin sticks
for ages a rain
O drum frog


era is ova
drew the tea clear
air then air
two scale trees and wet hair
lick your face

In other news, I am reading all the Alfred North Whitehead I can get my hands on. And am sifting the interwebs for cover ideas for my novel. And teaching Milton and Woolf. Woof.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This Is Jim Rockford

I've made my debut as a TV critic with an essay on how The Rockford Files got me through my fortieth birthday over at Press Play, a new Indiewire blog devoted to TV and film criticism. Check it out.

And if you're interested, here are some older posts on cinema and the cinematic:

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