Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail

Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Top Poetry Titles of 2010

Like floral holidays, year-end book lists are an instrument of the industries which benefit from them; in this case, the book agents and publishing industry executives whose business it is to dictate intelligent taste and how it should be produced, packaged, and consumed. But as Don DeLillo drily notes, “all lists are forms of cultural hysteria.”

I offer my own, then, with that cautionary framing, and by way of providing a counter-word to the stale repetitions of the lists found in the pages of the New York Times, The New Yorker, and all those factories of institutional conformity. In no particular order, and without annotation or any claim to having sampled more than a fraction of what was published this year, here are the poetry titles that I found most compelling in 2010.

(N.B. -- In looking over this list I can't help but notice that of the thirteen living poets, only four are younger than me, and then by just a slim margin. This is a problem. Perhaps one resolution for 2011 will be to read younger poets and not just my contemporaries or elders).

Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005 – Lissa Wolsak (Station Hill)

Luminous Epinoia – Peter O’Leary (The Cultural Society)

Trance Archive: Selected and New Poems – Andrew Joron (City Lights)

Roche Limit – Andrew Zawacki (Tir Aux Pigeons)

Of Sarah: Lines & Fragments – Julie Carr (Coffee House)

Pitch: Drafts 77-95 – Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Salt)

Driven to Abstraction – Rosmarie Waldrop (New Directions)

Is Music: Selected Poems – John Taggart, edited by Peter O'Leary (Copper Canyon)

Reason and Other Women – Alice Notley (Chax)

R's Boat - Lisa Robertson (UC Press)

Mean Free Path - Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon)

Collected Poems – Gustaf Sobin, edited by Andrew Joron & Andrew Zawacki (Talisman)

engulf—enkindle – Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals (Burning Deck)

New Selected Poems and Translations – Ezra Pound, edited by Richard Sieburth (New Directions)

To Be At Music: Essays & Talks – Norma Cole (Omnidawn)

The H.D. Book – Robert Duncan, edited by Michael Boughn & Victor Coleman (UC Press)

And two outstanding critical works:

Norman Finkelstein’s On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (Iowa UP)

Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (U Chicago)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fair Game or, The Hazards of the Secret Life

It’s premature to say so, of course, especially given the limited number of first-run films I actually see, but for my money, Fair Game is the film of the year. David Denby cynically downgrades it with faint praise, relegating it to the category of last year’s kvetch, as if there were an expiration date on injustice and malfeasance. This in itself is such a dismayingly cynical act of bad faith it makes you wonder who Karl Rove hasn’t gotten to. But the sense of shame and the hazards of moral integrity that drive this film are undeniably powerful, making it every bit as relevant as when Plamegate was unfolding.

Naomi Watts brings a clarity, an unfussiness, and a lack of vanity to this role that is completely focused and riveting to watch, while Sean Penn’s performance is both dynamic and subtle. Watts combines a wary intelligence with a sense of commitment and risk-taking that is deeply compelling. As Valerie Plame Wilson, she amplifies the role she played in 2009’s The International (see my post on it: here), here playing a dedicated professional forced by betrayal to become an unwilling crusader against the very service she’s devoted her life to. The demands of this complex role ask her to display a charged sense of duty with a vulnerability that is both harrowing and moving.

The film’s denouement, with its vindication of Plame and Joe Wilson’s speech to college students, reminding them that we live in a republic, is rousing, gratifying stuff, to be sure, but while the Wilson’s themselves come through their ordeal, the larger scandal of how the casus belli for Iraq was manufactured and sold still looms, unresolved, already a part of the collective cultural amnesia surrounding the Bush Administration.

Nevertheless, Fair Game is a potent revisitation of those crimes. Doug Liman’s direction and pacing are sterling and the script, by the Butterworth brothers, is smartly restrained, balancing and intermeshing the private and the public with great delicacy. At the heart of this film is an exploration of the nexus where family loyalty is entangled with patriotism, love with professionalism, personal integrity with duty and service, all set under an excruciating pressure. Far from acting as abstract mottoes or perfunctory duties, these spheres of activity penetrate one another in the most intimate ways so that when one unravels, they all unravel.

Such is the price, as LeCarre might say, of “the secret life.” The larger structures of the social, which even in an open society, depend upon the clandestine, always already pulverize the individual, reducing her to a subject, as part of that agreement, and there is no protection, no immunity, from the state one serves, even in good faith. Any system with the clandestine at its core operates according to the logic of betrayal, then.

Fair Game is really an allegory about the decline and fall of the technocratic managers who preside over the American middle class's "counterfeit freedom," as Adorno puts it. This is particularly brought home, so to speak, by the film's two halves, in the first of which Plame conducts the Agency's business in Kuala Lumpur and Baghdad and the second, where the arena of global tensions takes over ordinary domestic spaces: the kitchen, the living room, the playground. The buffer that kept these two spheres separate is dissolved. As Jameson might say, this collapse of difference is the logic of late capital.

If the clandestine is the price for maintaining a politics of global influence and consumer affluence, then as citizens of empire we are each of us living in its shadows, on the thin margin between the unchecked privileges of power and the exposure which can, at any moment, plunge us into disaster.

UPDATE: By chance, the nominations for the Golden Globes were announced today. Neither "Fair Game" nor Naomi Watts were selected, which means that the social amnesia is all but complete and Denby is right. Iraq is so yesterday's news. That's a shame, because this picture, despite its weaknesses,* deserves so much more.

* As a former story analyst in Hollywood, my report would have recommended one less scene featuring either parent maintaining a stiff upper lip as the world collapses around them while their kids make a kid-like clamor. This kind of scenic domestic shorthand is no substitute for building up the texture of lived reality. I don't even recall the names of the children. One small scene -- perhaps it was excised? -- between father or mother and one of the twins would have gone a long way toward sustaining that sense of layering. On the other hand, the scene between Watts and her father, played by Sam Shepard, is near-perfect.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Singing Nothing or, Hymns to Zero: Rosmarie Waldrop's "Driven to Abstraction"

What is the value of zero? Is it nothing? Or might it be better to ask instead, what kind of cultural work does zero perform? How is absence woven into the metaphysics of presence, as Derrida might put it? To what extent do we depend upon the little bit of emptiness encompassed within the narrow circle that is zero? How does it uphold us? Undo us? Re-affirm us?

These questions bring to mind Paul Valery’s witticism: “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothing still shows through.”

They also call up some of the earliest, most primal considerations of nothing (or is it “something”?) from The Rigveda.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred? Where?

On the other hand: “The Void is a quantum sea of zero point waves, with all possible wavelengths,” as Frank Close tells us in his delightful book, Nothing.

On the other other hand, Andrew Joron announces: “zero point is also a crossing point, a crossing out and a crossing over of the Sign.” Poesis is cognate with the ground of the unsayable, a plenum of zeroes spilling over into speech: “an articulation, not a cancellation, of silence.” And: “This crossing point is a site of utter suspension, of an utterance suspended at the crux of beyond-being: the Cry at zero.”

Such thoughts belong to a vatic order of language. They lay a charge for a logos that somehow lives outside of history, even as it seeks to intervene, to alter and revise and clarify its logic. If there is a logic to history. If there is, it must in some way be supported by nothing and through the sign for nothing we can begin to imagine the greater valences of random connectivity which 0 both invites and permits.

The extravagant, multi-pitched final sequence in Driven to Abstraction, Rosmarie Waldrop’s newest book, takes up these questions in a storied and extended ode to the powers of kenosis and the ultimate value of nothingness. Waldrop is decidedly not of the tribe of the mystic, as is Joron, but of the skeptic, the ironist, the worker of the warp of words who subtends the genius of slippage. Yet, this, too, is somehow and in spite of itself, vatic.

Waldrop’s extraordinary constellation – beginning with “Zero or, the Opening Position” – reads like a history of the metaphysical comedy of negation -- its failures and its hopes -- from its cosmic architectures to its daily economics. It is a remarkable poem, a poem, not about nothing, the nothing of the mystics, of either the via negativa of Pseudo-Dionysus or the khora of Derrida, but a recitation of zero and its curious history as a concept. Of its migration into the West from medieval Arabic mathematics and its subsequent role as a placeholder for the underlying, the foundational that is anti-foundational, “zero, the corrosive number,” as she calls it, without which nothing counts.

Nothing. Zero. Absence of things, of signs. Unnatural. Hover in the same space and identical as twins. Point nowhere and like poems mean but what they say. And are but what is not.

Absence, signed by zero, is what enables language at all, for Waldrop. Zero is the empty knot at the center of every calculation. The absent present that permits speech to conjure spirit, the ghost inside every word and number. A form of grace or is it haunting that blows through every economy, the wind of circulation making the invisible tangible even as it drains the real of substance in the name of meaning.

“Zero or, Opening Position,” is really a suite of interlinked meditations, each one taking up some particular historical, cultural, or philosophical aspect of the concept of zero and its passage into the very core of Western epistemology (though it could be argued it was always already there, from Plato’s Parmenides, at least).

There are poems on money -- both bank and paper; on Vermeer and Montaigne and the ayn sof of the Kabbalists. On Meister Eckhart, modern cosmology, the hermetic lore of nothing, and King Lear's nothing, which strives to pierce his own blindness and is finally reckoned in blood.

If all this sound too abstract, Waldrop reminds us that zero is also profoundly intimate, a richly embodied experience.

Impossible to picture nothing. Even in a mind where unicorns roam whose bodies crumble before the light. Always I find myself hiding somewhere near the edge.

It’s not that nothing can come from nothing. Is it vanity, the delirious power of zero? Its exuberant potential? Of vanities? Its manufactures (and without hands) an infinite of numbers we can barely imagine.

And what profit has a man? Or, for that matter, a woman? Who loves the damp detour of the body? How, among, the infinite numbers – exceeding the grains of sand that would fill the universe – will they know each other?

The tenderness that haunts the precinct of zero casts a lonely, auratic light here. Zero is at once the inexorable, yet phantasmal, structure of capital's brutal empire, and the numen of plenitude that shines when one body touches another, the place where eros redeems, if only for a moment, the depredations of history.

In Waldrop’s catalogue, her bestiary of 0, it is everything and nothing, emptied of all potential and replete with the full range of signification and agency.

And yet. At the bottom of any thing I find a word that made it. And I write. Have made a pact with nothingness. Make love to absent bodies. And though I cannot fill the space they do not occupy their shadows stand between me and thin sky.

In the end, this is not the work of an ironist at all, but of a poet devoted to the thrill of language's endless permutations. Driven To Abstraction offers the deepest affirmation of how the poetic is wedded to the body’s tendrilled affiliations, its desires to connect across the void and against the heartbreaking limit of mortal distances and their continual erasures. It is the most sustained and powerful poetry of Waldrop’s entire career.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Libraries

A library is useful to a writer only insofar as it lacks discernible utility.

In addition to whatever it has of the needful – the research texts, the books one teaches, the responsible range of volumes which cover one’s chosen field – it should also contain a collection of the odd, the eccentric, the offbeat, the undervalued, the curious, the weird, and the totally indulgent and utterly useless.

Only in this way can it fulfill its true mission, which is not to be a summum bonum of knowledge, a repository of all things written, but to exist as a kind of commons for encountering the random, the chanced-on, the unlooked-for – whatever can spark the surprise of intervention. Which is also what goes by the name of grace.

Foucault, commenting on "The Library of Babel," by Borges, praises the idea of “the great, invisible labyrinth of language, of language that divides itself and becomes its own mirror.”

And in his magnificent elegy for Duncan, Palmer writes: “Send me my dictionary./Write how you are.” What else is a dictionary for a poet but a grimoire, a book of spells by which a world might be conjured and the dead come to visit us again? This is the very essence of the library -- a vast whispering colloquy of ghosts, attendant.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On Innocence and Contingency

I was at a dinner with some poets and scholars not long ago when the conversation turned to the question: “What is it that artists want?” To which a noted Milton scholar smugly replied: “innocence.” How like a Miltonist, I thought.

But to understand innocence is to understand that it is and can never be primary, but secondary always. Innocence is what comes after; it is known only through its loss, its absence; it is what comes into being after the fall from grace, if grace is to understood as a category of not-knowing, of not-being-able-to-know that one is in a state of grace; a kind of spiritual blindspot.

Innocence is the name we give to the condition of naïve experience that cannot know itself. It can therefore never be true innocence. True innocence can only be arrived at – as a state of achieved simplicity that comes through and after complexity. That comes only through a dialectical negation of experience, loss, and the sorrows born of contingency.

The only innocence which can finally matter is not that which we have lost, but that which are striving to obtain. As a return to the imaginary of grace. A state that never was, but which we need to posit as original, as both preceding us and yet always still ahead of us. A state derived from the logic of the supplement, that precludes all appeals to the foundational, that recognizes that grace must always, can only, come after. It is not given – it is undergone. In a word, it is suffered. (See under: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, et al).

It must be thought of as a kind of forgiveness, then. Just as Kristeva writes that forgiveness breaks the concatenation of cause and effect, its endless iron chain, so innocence is an intervention into and a surpassing of history. Its economy is libidinal, erotic, a-historical, that which opposes contingency.

But of course it cannot come on its own. It needs contingency to supply it with its moment for falling. Innocence is therefore inseparable from contingency. Without the pressures of history, innocence is an empty descriptor, a sentimental fetish marking some pre-conscious realm of purity.

What is it that artists want? The immature artist longs to recapture lost innocence. The mature artist strives to redeem language and experience from the predations of history. This, I would humbly submit, is the only and true meaning of hope.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Camera Lucida or, Obscured by Light

Taken as pure artifact, the photograph may be seen as that singular instrumentality of desire by which we seek perpetually to recover or recuperate the past -- be it our immediate past, or the past of previous generations. Always, the photograph acts as the medium that would obliterate all trace of itself in the performance of its delivery of the Other -- other time, other culture, even other self. My self, as composed only yesterday in the failing garden of autumn, undergoes, through the agency of the photograph, a sea-change: the absent made present once again, the vanished self returned as revenant.

To see ourselves in the photograph is to gaze into a mirror with the power to eternize the past, to fix and stabilize identity, to stop the slippage of time. In its role as recording angel, as talismanic preserver of the real, the photograph provides the unimpeachable evidence by which we build a sense of continuity with the past, even as it subtly undermines that continuity, or rather, renders it fictive, replacing the idea of the past as immutable and somehow sacrosanct with a highly contextualized version it has manufactured on its own.

The photograph, seemingly innocent of history, is maculate with its desire to puncture and despoil history, to become its sole totem and fetish. The speculum of the photograph, which we clutch and display as we might some charm to ward off death, is steeped and stained in our mortality.

Perhaps this explains the deep and utter fascination it holds for us: through its impossible project of effacing the inevitability of death it appears to afford us with the opportunity to enlarge our personal being, to supplement our sense of loss and decay with the image; yet at the same time, it mordantly impresses on us that death is the end of all plots. At bottom, the photograph is metaphysical -- it expresses the longing of human beings to transcend space and time and the limitations of personal condition, to displace the acute anxiety we feel at the disappearance of the past through the replication of the past in an image. And yet, the ideality of the light, its power to illumine and clarify, is in the photograph transformed to something murkier, almost opaque.

To write with light, literally, in the photograph, is to inscribe on the psyche another kind of darkness or obscurity; “the real” is presented in all its crystalline and incontrovertible quiddity, only to be subsumed beneath the desire to possess what cannot be possessed; to restore by means of a technological apparition that which is already irretrievably lost, and by doing so assuage the unbearable melancholy that we read into the daily diminution of our being.

This theology of light embodied by the photograph represents for Roland Barthes both the triumph of a pellucid realism and the apotheosis of the romantic yearning to immemorialize the past. Barthes is openly and joyously lyrical about this self-described utopian project: for him, paradoxically, the photograph makes possible the ancient dream of a pure and wholly unmediated perception. In the photograph, proclaims Barthes in Camera Lucida, “the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (89).

Barthes fetishizes the documentarian power of the camera. His is a peculiar realism -- it extols and valorizes the image of the thing above the thing itself. This attitude extends even so far as to encompass the individual himself. The act of being photographed induces the subject to transform himself ”in advance into an image” (10). “I feel,” writes Barthes, “that the Photograph creates my body...” (11). It is very much as if Barthes feels himself to be undergoing the primal dehiscence which for Lacan characterizes the creation of the specular-I, that projection of one’s infant body in a mirror that presents an image of the self perfected, whole and complete.

Lacan writes, in “The Mirror Stage,” that the infant (or to substitute Barthes’ term, “the spectator”) gazing into a mirror is caught up in a drama whose origins are prompted by a sense of deficiency that eventually passes into the re-figuration of the self “through the lure of spatial identification” to arrive, via “a succession of phantasies” at a new a form of totality (4). “What I want,” says Barthes, “is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs ... should always coincide with my (profound) self” (12). Although a few sentences later he laments that this desire is doomed, that he can never attain a “zero degree” of embodiedness, the entirety of Camera Lucida is nevertheless underwritten by this wild and unfulfillable longing to authenticate the self as Other, to re-assemble the fragmentary aspects of being through the seemingly automatic, autonomous and anonymous aperture of the camera’s lens.

The key for this, for Barthes, is held in what he calls “the punctum” of the photograph, a term he initially characterizes as “that accident that pricks me” (27). The punctum precipitates a frisson; through the representation of some arbitrary detail it evokes a sharp emotional response. By its completely contingent nature, it speaks both to the wound and the mystery of being. It is the mark of the human, that is, it has the power to surprise us by touching us in a profoundly intimate way. For Barthes, the punctum provides a gateway to the Absolute, to the purely unmediated vision of the real. Charged with a “power of expansion” (45), the punctum is liberating: it bears the signal quality of what in an openly theological discourse would be called “grace.”

“What I can name cannot really prick me,” says Barthes (51). The punctum acquires its virtue through its resistance to classification; its opacity ennobles it, and deepens the sense of mystery it carries to the eye. The punctum behaves as a kind of Derridean supplement, making available a surplus of meaning that does not so much confirm the “studium” of the photograph (by which Barthes means its field of interpretation, the precise historical moment it presents to us) as it subverts and lays it open to another and deeper kind of seeing. The punctum is what restores being to its most intimate disclosure by way of violating the field of the studium. It is essentially a-historical. This is what enables Barthes to assert his claim for the photograph as the mechanism that rescues desire from mediation. It is a claim that refuses to recognize that desire is always already shaped by intention, that vision is always vision of something, and therefore necessarily delimited from its inception.

There remains, nevertheless, something appealing in Barthes’ impossible project. Merleau-Ponty sums it up in his essay, “The Specter of a Pure Language,” thusly: “We all secretly venerate the ideal of a language which would ... deliver us from language by delivering us to things” (4). For Barthes, photography is such a language. It “reverses the course of the thing” photographed and opens the way to a “photographic ecstasy” (119), a moment of perception that is outside time, yet drenched in the erotics of the mortal, the absent.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Decrypted from a Dark Book: Some Notes on Sound in Andrew Zawacki and Andrew Joron

A Roche limit, according to the Britannica, is “the minimal distance, with respect to the center of a planet, at which a satellite is able to orbit without being destroyed by tidal forces.” In Andrew Zawacki’s poem of the same title, this becomes a potent way to conjure not so much the influence of one poet’s work on another, as though it were such a cut and dry linear transaction, but the complex echo chamber of interactions and resistances, privilegings and reluctances, that mark the practice of reading.

Roche Limit sets this dynamic tension into play. Laid out in four-line stanzas, each one marked by roughly four beats per line, it surges forward in a compelling rhythm capable of surprising turns and reverberating with fractal resonances. Though its form most immediately calls to mind Ronald Johnson’s extraordinary AIDS elegy, “Blocks to Be Arranged in the Form of a Pyramid,” Roche Limit is less elegy, than homage to the late Gustaf Sobin, another master mason of the word-block and the serpentine line.

echoes off ledge
opens upon upon
a glassy rotation
some spectra aurora

a nor'easter carving
the littered littoral’s
bitmapped pebbles and
washed bottle script

neither itself nor
neither its neither
or it ruins
or it rains

Recalling the title of one of Sobin's collections, In The Name of the Neither, this intricate, nuanced sound play enacts its own model of the Roche limit, as words slide through one another and into their own process of associative elision and repetition, a principle of rime, as Duncan might say, that recalls the innermost linguistic and ontological structures for mapping levels of relation. As he puts it in “The Structure of Rime II,” “An absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance establishes measures that are music in the actual world.”

Zawacki’s work is to be cherished for this, but I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the foremost practitioner of this method now writing, Andrew Joron, whose most recent books, Fathom and The Sound Mirror, exemplify this divinatory praxis. Joron capitalizes on the generative slippages which govern the chance combinatory properties of language. As he writes in “Voice of Eye” (dedicated to Sobin; and here I should note that both poets were responsible for editing Sobin’s Collected Poems; no better guardians of his work can be imagined).

"Air is merest modulation to err."

Or again, from “Nightsun, Sign”:

“Red, unread, as Eurydice’s indices—“

And again, in “As Ending, Send”:

“O tome, O tomb, I hum a hymn to home, to whom.”

These are lines decrypted from a dark book, pitched to an arcane thrum, a holy thread of labyrinthine sound that interweaves the soul and the tongue. The method -- is it a method? call it the logic of paronomasia -- teeters, at times, on the brink of decay, yet what rescues it into continual surprise is the poet’s commitment to the sublime yield of phonemic constellation and all the spaces, and nodes, of micro logical difference that open up between each slip-gap, each meld-slide, within a horizon of negation and wonder.

Perhaps the idea of the tremendous balance that keeps the Roche limit in play lends itself to an even larger notion, that of the continually negotiated relationship between the poet and language itself, with the stress of attraction to the gravity well of logos mitigated only by the poem’s own negentropic counter-thrust.

As Joron writes, concluding "Autumnal Spring":

To song, to sing, "There is no
Belonging."

& "Belonging
Elongates to longing & the gates of song."

These gates of song are the site of ever-repeated rituals of intimacy and dispossession, performed through the sway and elision of music's logic. To belong to song's longing is to be at once at-homed and exiled.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Anthologist or, The Myth of the Poet

One of the many questions raised by Nicholson Baker’s delightful, yet problematic, 2009 novel is how much does its view of poetry belong to its neurotic anthologist, Paul Chowder, and how much to the author himself? Baker – or Baker’s character – promotes a pantheon of tired, mid-century, all-white American poetry that’s straight out of another anthology. I’m thinking of Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, but also Hall, Pack and Simpson’s New Poets of America and Britain.

In other words, the kind of poets and poetry The Anthologist endorses (Bogan, Nemerov, Moss), with a great deal of nostalgic fanfare, are the kind the editors of “The New Yorker” have made safe for consumption. ("The New Yorker" itself gets frequent mention as a part of a prestige name-checking schtick that seems half-put on, half homage, while its former poetry editor, Alice Quinn, the doyenne of the soporific, is praised as “the magnificent Alice!” with no apparent trace of irony).

Conspicuously absent so far (I’m only 60 pages in, not counting some leapfrogging about) is any kind of poetry associated with the avant-garde or the New American Poetry. The sole exception has been Mina Loy. The Anthologist, in other words, and I hate to put it this way, is a paean to what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude and its hallowed tradition of being, well, hallowed.

Now the SoQ is a term of decidedly Manichean proportions. As a category for describing the faultlines in American poetry between modernism and anti-modernism, the revolution of the word and the counter-revolution, it lacks in subtlety what it makes up for in paranoia and shrillness. Yet all too often Silliman’s tilting is spot-on. And for Baker’s novel, I think it’s case of “if the shoe fits…”

A brief list of poets mentioned as far as I’ve read include, in addition to those above: Scott, Shelley, Longfellow, Tennyson, Hardy, Yeats, Roethke, Berryman, Millay, Amy Lowell, Teasdale, Auden, Bishop, Ted Hughes, Wendy Cope, James Fenton, and James Wright. Square as square can be. Pound and Marinetti are mentioned only pour scorn on them.

It’s not that I have a personal quarrel to pick with any of these poets. Or that many of them haven’t given me enormous pleasure. Shelley and Yeats especially, and Berryman to a lesser extent. But to have no Blake, no Whitman? (No Dickinson, either, but I’m sure she’s waiting in the wings). There’s no Stein, Zukofsky, Williams (yet), Oppen, Niedecker, Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Ginsberg (yet), Baraka, Brooks, or Ashbery. And surprisingly, no Creeley, who was a master of the four-beat line. In other words, nothing smacking of linguistic complexity or heterodoxy; nothing partaking of the mystic, the mythic, the transpersonal; nothing to detract from the notion that a poem is simply a tidy container of concisely reported minor personal experience (some observations capped by an epiphany) anchored in a fixed (not to say ossified) point of view; that it’s about, to use an example Chowder offers, an inchworm, or a flying spoon. The idea here is that a poem is really a story, (“prose in slow motion”) with some of the narrative links left out.

And that is certainly one model of what poetry is and not necessarily a poor one. Great poems have been written in this model. It would take someone far more churlish than I to denounce the beauty of Housman’s “white in the moon the long road lies,” a line of surpassing grace and simplicity which Chowder quotes with approval. But Michael Palmer’s “you can bring down a house with sound” is beautiful, too. One difference is that Housman’s delicate song is about the longing for an absent love, whereas Palmer is writing an elegy that takes apart some pre-conceived notions of how language works, doing it in a way that rejects the patient building of one line on top of another in perfect sequence, accruing power through juxtaposition rather than hypotactical jointure. The ancient power of the single great line endures, yes, because metrical language endures. But Chowder – or is it Baker? – turns it into the kind of fetish the New Critics once burned their profane cigars to.

Yes, the beat is the message, as Fanny Howe writes in her elegy for Creeley. Chowder gets it frustratingly right and wrong at the same time when he chidingly relates his anecdote about Ginsberg at Naropa denouncing traditional metrics in favor of a liberated, Olsonian model in which “the rhythm of poetry is the rhythm of the body.” As one character advises Chowder, who’s struggling with his introduction to the anthology: “People love neurobiological explanations.” The line comes off as a amusing put-down of trendiness. Yet this is exactly what the bedeviled narrator ends up doing over the course of the novel, passionately explaining how rhyme is a form of poetic dopamine (his riff on sobbing reminds me of Donald Hall’s classic essay, “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird”).

This argument is not without merit, but it ends up pathologizing rhyme rather than identifying how its consolations derive from a principle of symmetry and correspondence, how their music provides a cognitive patterning that may be part of our DNA but whose larger meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness. What starts off as a promising account of rhyme’s primal satisfactions ends up strained and pedestrian. The better analogy here would be to music, not the crossword.

Even the creakiest prosody manuals advance some form of a neurobiological account of meter and rhyme that is ultimately rooted in the body. Chowder/Baker’s view of rhyme and the four-stress line wants to be restorative, yet its very narrowness constricts the potential for how a poem can resist and subvert these models in powerful ways to produce a surprising music.

One of the problems with having a problem with The Anthologist is that when it’s not peddling a lame model of poetics, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Baker is able to have his cake and eat it, too, holding up the earnest, yet hapless, Chowder for some light-hearted ridicule, while continually affirming him as a figure of genuine endearment. The novel’s view of poetry is antique, hopelessly mired in prosody textbooks of the 1950s, yet the pleasure it takes from poetry is genuine.

The other problem with the novel is a familiar one: trying to determine the reliability of its man-child, doofus narrator. What do we know about him? He’s been published in “The New Yorker.” He’s won a “Gugg,” as he calls it. He’s been anthologized himself. By his own admission he’s a lousy teacher. And he goes through a lot of the inane half-ass rituals all writers perform in the daily grind of finding a way into language. This is where most of the comedy comes in. Baker’s feel, his ear I almost want to say, for the obsessive micrologies of the writing life is hilarious.

But here’s where some of the confusion also comes in: Baker achieves many of his daffy moments by having Chowder ramble amiably on about poetry in a semi-daft, semi-serious way the upshot of which is that nothing is at stake spiritually or culturally. The closest he gets is to compare poetry to some kind of advanced crossword puzzle. It should be said that part of the pathos, though that's probably too strong a word, comes from Chowder's defense, not just of rhyme, but of poets like Bogan and Moss whom Baker surely knows are out-of-fashion. So is the joke on poetry, then?

Nowhere do we read about poetry as negation, about its tremendous power of disruption. Modernism appears to have not taken place at all, except as some minor wayward backwater exercise of a few kooks like Pound, Olson and Ginsberg. For Chowder, and presumably Baker as well, the Great Tradition in poetry is Apollonian; unyieldingly affirmative of such shibboleths as the eternal human spirit.

So who’s the joke on? On poor Paul Chowder, the faux naïf whose mixture of lovable zeal and irredeemable mediocrity suggests an imperfect character who confirms Ford Maddox Ford’s grim, but accurate, pronouncement that most artists are born to fill the graveyards? Or is it on the reader, who follows this fool for poetry love through one comic pratfall after another, discerning a kind of baseline nobility, while swallowing whole his gushy valentine to the four-beat line and the power of rhyme?

As a spoof of the writing life and an homage to the sonorous music of the Grand Tradition Itself, The Anthologist proves charming and seductive. (Did I mention there's also a plot? Something to do with getting back with an old girlfriend). As an apologia for the conservative virtues of meter, it makes a somewhat embarrassing and naively reductive case for timeless, essential values in “verse.” Or worse.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Departed (Michael Gizzi)

The news of Michael Gizzi's death, so sudden, it seemed, first came to me through Silliman's Blog. The rollcall of the dead, as someone named it. Yet Ron, for all his prickly acuity, does a great service here -- the duty of remembering the fallen, even if you've never heard of them, who share this queer hard labor of the word.

Which is what has struck me about Michael Gizzi's death. A guy I barely knew. A guy who bristled with strange charisma and his work, well, it was lovely. His departure, through deep trouble, sends out ripples and connects so many of us who care for the craft, care for what he cared for. The instant of surprise. That sense of being astonished on the lip of a poem.

I saw him last fall in Lowell, on a panel about Kerouac with Anne Waldman, Pen was there, lovely and poised, and he was bright with the call and response, and later, standing outside, early evening, by a brick wall, kind of hunched into himself, weirdly glamorous and all alone, and I could have spoken then and didn't.

The Departed

Say you say nothing.
That would be the simplest way.

Or say you sing a song of sixpence
then put the phone down.

Say you say the words, a few words
for you, for you are departed.

Choose random phrases.
It’s raining today.

Mix random phrases
with items from the news.

If I can bear it, I will call.
If I can bear his dearness then
I will call or I may fall silent.

Say you plead silence
and put the phone down
as terrestrial love creeps by unawares.

Say you say how each word matters.
The green grass, the golden pine needles.

Say it is raining somewhere.

How we go out in the morning.
How we come home in the evening.

Say in a few words how less
is better. How least, lost,
the last letter is a whisper.

Say it so the ghost can hear you.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Shudder

In my last post, I offered a somewhat clumsy overview of Adorno's notion of spirit, contrasting it with Hegel's. What drew me to the passages from Adorno's work was not so much his conception of spirit, but his insistence that art must become darkened, and enigmatic so as to protect "the shudder." A few more words then, on the shudder, which Adorno places at the heart of this theory about the origins of art and with which he concludes Aesthetic Theory. I find this passage perhaps the most forceful, if not exactly the most eloquent, apologia for the necessity of art among all I've read. It restores to art its original Dionysian violence and strangeness, its sheer uncannyness.

"Ultimately, aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image. What later came to be called subjectivity, freeing itself from the blind anxiety of the shudder, is at the same time the shudder's own development; life in the subject is nothing but what shudders, the reaction to the total spell that transcends the spell. Consciousness without shudder is reified consciousness. That shudder in which subjectivity stirs without yet being subjectivity is the act of being touched by the other. Aesthetic comportment assimilates itself to that other rather than subordinating it. Such a constitutive relation of the subject to objectivity in aesthetic comportment joins eros and knowledge" (AT 331).

What the shudder delivers to us is not only the strangeness of the other, but the intimacy of our bond with him; an empathetic link that both confirms and overcomes our essential strandedness and fraility. The shudder is anti-classical. It does not confer unity, it does not offer clarity, it makes no parade of symmetry or balance; none of the traditional consolations of art. And yet, it is erotic, touched perhaps with jouissance; ecstatic, maybe; corporeal, certainly; absolutely radical.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Adorno, Spirit, Enigma

(N.B. - some random pages from my dissertation that will probably end up on the cutting room floor).

The question of what happens to spirit in modernity is a complicated one and I shall only touch on it briefly here since it seems to me that the late Objectivist moment is less concerned with locating and resolving issues about spirit as such and how it might continue to mean in some worthwhile sense, and more on how history might be repaired and redeemed. In other words, the concerns with spirit that occupied a previous generation (and continue to vex those who would appeal to the government-in-exile of timeless transcendental values) have now migrated into the question of how to redeem historical disaster, how to alleviate human suffering.

What Raymond Williams said of "nature" could be applied with equal justice to "spirit." It is perhaps the most complex word in the language, used by widely divergent groups to indicate often dissimilar things. Yet the one thing these usages of spirit share in common is the designation of a non-material essence or property, either etherially transcendental, in the theological sense, belonging to an intuitive order of perception, or describing an innate attribute, drive, or primary feature of character in the empirical sense; an interiority that is both self-reflexive and rational.

Hegel uses it on several registers: as the subjective intellect or feeling; as the objective common values of a group; as, in the absolute sense, art or religion; and finally as the historical process whereby the world recognizes its own totality; a kind of pan-cultural self-reflexivity. Dialectics propels spirit along these stages of identity, through ever widening spheres of self-consciousness, toward the culmination of history through the negative movements of Absolute Spirit.

Adorno’s use of spirit derives from this Idealist tradition but is turned in such a way as to oppose the idea of spirit as a vehicle for world history or unifying social totality. What spirit signifies, at least in part, for Adorno is “inwardness,” a category of subjective experience that has become increasingly emptied out to the degree to which the autonomous subject itself has lost social power. This inwardness, Adorno, says, poses a problem for art since it is at once “the mirage of an inner kingdom” that has become empty of content and yet without which “art is scarcely imaginable” (AT 116).

To meet this challenge, art must become enigmatic, or endarkened. It must “do justice to contingency,” which can be read as another word for history, I think, “by probing in the darkness of the trajectory of its own necessity. The more truly art follows this trajectory, the less self-transparent art is. It makes itself dark” (AT 115). This endarkenement (a term Robert Duncan employed in an anti-rationalist, or intuitive, context closer to that of The Cloud of Unknowing) acts to counter the synthesizing propensities of spiritualization, its inevitable drift toward abstraction and totalization.

To become truly redemptive, Adorno claims, art must act so that “the spirit in it throws itself away” (AT 118). This radical self-canceling “holds true to the shudder, but not by regression to it. Rather, art is its legacy. The spirit of artworks produces the shudder by externalizing it in objects” (AT 188). That is, art replicates the originary shudder of recognition and displacement in the work itself, which, endarkened and estranging, disrupts spirit’s recidivist move to totality. In this sense, all artworks are caesuras, ritual scissions which cut into the illusory fabric of social relations and ideology.

If spirit for Hegel is rational self-consciousness coupled to a restless pursuit of self-negation and overcoming that stems from the desire for achieving an absolute self-realization, then for Adorno spirit's vitality must always remain oppositional.
“Dialectics is the self-consciousness of the objective context of delusion; it does not mean to have escaped from that concept. Its objective goal is to breakout of that concept from within” (ND 406).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Wayback Machine: D.A. Miller on Jane Austen

(N.B. these notes first appeared on the Green Romanticism listserv at the University of Colorado, Fall 2002).

A Report on Style – D.A. Miller's “Jane Austen and the Secret of Style”

The Miller talk was as well attended an event as I've ever seen here. I didn't take notes, so what follows is my hazy reconstruction. From my perch in the back of the cavernous, faux-Oxbridge mead hall the backs of peoples' heads appear not as the absence of their faces, but as a second kind of face, albeit one that can't return my gaze, which must be what makes them a bit uncanny.

The gist of what Miller wanted to suggest is that all style results from a queering of language or textual affect. That style is that feminized part of the text that narrates the process of its own production and is concerned solely with that and with nothing else. Substance is associated with the masculine portion of the text, the content, or message. According to this queer logic, style inhabits a kind of aesthetic closet, which the writer must resort to disclosing in order to achieve style, which is otherwise barred from normative discourse. Style is invisible, then, in some ways, but calls attention to itself in others. It can and does appear everywhere, but always in code, never under its own name. A lot like the homosexual in hetero-dominant culture. Hence, the masterfully tranquil and transparent appearance of naturalness to Austen’s highly rigorous and artificial style.

To illustrate, he gave a close reading of a passage from Sense and Sensibility, in which a group of women observe a dandy in a jewelry store go through some preening, overly elaborate arrangements about a toothpick case. The case, itself more important than what it contains, serves as a metaphor for style, as does the performance of the arrangements, a gesture whose expenditure is calculated to inflate the value of the case itself, in effect, making it insignificant. The dandy himself, through a complex exchange of inverted gazes that code him as gay, likewise seeks to re-position himself over the discomfited women as the primary object of visual desire in the store. Again, a metaphor for style. Miller unpacked a wealth of meaning from this finely wrought, but very small, episode. I thought it was a pretty brilliant reading. At the very least, it displayed considerable style.

In response to a question (by an undergrad!), Miller asserted that Barthesian jouissance and Derridean play are not factors that effect Austen’s text since she maintains an “absolute control.” And she gets this control by way of “discipline,” or “repression.” But surely wherever repression is involved, then so is a return of the repressed. Which means that whatever has been excluded comes back into play to destabilize the text. “Absolute control” is an odd sort of retro-move to make this late in the day, a kind of nostalgia for the imperial text.

One area that I wish Miller had expanded on was the notion of style and donation. I didn’t catch all of what he said, much less make sense of what I did hear. But it made me wonder about the idea of style as a gift, as donatus. Style as donation may be the way a writer tries to escape the constraints of the debt incurred to presence by staging writing as a pure gift, a gesture void of content or substance. The “gift” of style tries to displace one presence - the writer’s - and substitute for it another - the authority of the text itself, purged of authoriality, as though it were a spontaneously and organically self-producing form. Such a move alleviates the burden of anxiety the writer carries in facing her text. The move to purify removes or cleanses the text of its polluting elements, which is the imprint of the writer herself. Style gives itself in place of the author. It’s a kind of sacrificial strategy, a formal violence that elides the writer in order to present the text itself to the reader.

Post-script:
The idea that style is generated out of the secret tensions between an expressed masculine and a repressed feminine inside the text makes it appear as though the question of detecting style, or of producing style, will always be a matter of “outing.” This is a very clever argument, but I’m suspicious of arguments that are only clever, as I’m afraid this one may be. Which perhaps is another way of saying that all style and no substance makes me anxious. But my question remains: isn’t this an overdetermined queer reading of the production of style?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Shelley Love (aka the 69th English Institute)

Let me just say right out: I love Adela Pinch. She makes me all, I don't know, swoony. Her talk on Shelley love as a major chapter in the evolution of the psychology and discourse of love, on a Sunday morning, in the Fong Auditorium of Boylston Hall, was the highlight of the whole conference for me.

The English Institute, which sounds like some kind of sinister cabal of world plotters in a William Gibson novel, annually gathers the leading scholarly lights from across all fields to discourse dazzlingly each September on a single theme. This year it was "The Author."

Because I was back in Cambridge and seeing so many old friends, I attended only sporadically and no doubt missed some Major Stuff. But Pinch's talk, "A Shape All Light," from Shelley's "Triumph of Life," knocked my socks off. Witty, impassioned, and just plain beautiful, it mapped out the Victorian cult of PBS as a sentimental fetish and the demigod of etherial love -- an almost Christ-like figure, esp. for women writers like the now forgotten Elinor Wylie -- only to argue that this cultic frenzy played a strong role in the formation of early British object-relations psychology. Though she quoted Procul Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale," I'm surprised that Pinch didn't see fit to work in The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" as well.

The love of authors -- the author as oracle, the author as the picture of our truer and better selves, the author as messianic -- was central to the larger cultural understanding of love itself. Though I think, really, that instead of "love," she might have used "interiority." For the author is the mapper of internal space, indeed, the author of that space, a space traditionally marked as feminine, but eventually seen as foundational to the confusing operations of subjectivity.

In some ways Pinch's talk reminded me of Judith Butler's thesis in "Psychic Life of Power" that the scission of melancholy produces subjectivity. Like love, melancholy, in Pinch's words now, not Butler's "gives shape to our internal object world." (She made this remark in reference to how Woolf used PBS in her famous essay, "On Being Ill").

There is much I'm skipping over here. The Shelley haters. The fascinating way Victorian occultists glommed onto poor Shelley, penning posthumous works in his name, even revising his poems! And the role which "good sound" plays in Shelley love -- the euphony of semiosis. This was drastically under-read, I thought. Perhaps the single point to take away was this: Shelley lovers were in the habit of planting violets around his grave. Other Shelley lovers practiced the ritual of tearing them up as keepsakes. Even Shelley's heart, Pinch told us, was wrapped at the last by Mary in a page from "Adonais." After she died, it was found in her desk drawer, crumbled to dust.

The word Pinch uses for all this is: "transferable." By which she also means: "perverse." "A shape all light" is that which continually eludes us; feeding and defeating us, it teaches us through the figure of the author how we might love ourselves as though we were other.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Poetry Chronicles, Part 2-Desire Series, Mark DuCharme

This review was originally to have appeared in the journal 6ix in 1999 or 2000. But as one of its editors, Heather Thomas, later told me, an intern mysteriously vanished with the disc containing all the files for that volume. In my mind's eye I can still picture him, an unshaven undergrad with a perpetual slouch, some disheveled dude slacking away into obscurity.

Note: I haven't figured out how to preserve indentations in the blog editor yet, so some unfortunate violence will be visited on the elegant lines below.

Desire Series, by Mark DuCharme (Dead Metaphor Press)

With his latest collection of poems, Desire Series, Mark DuCharme once again offers compelling evidence that the poem is not an artifact, but an odyssey, and that reading is not a matter of passive absorption, but an activity that requires serious and engaged attention. Desire Series is a finely reticulated set of meditations on the mysterious interactions between between eros and imagination. Desire here behaves as both the longing for expansion and the perpetual deferral of that expansion. In other words, as differance.

The work is never as saturated as
We desire their presences to
Be
But still we live like houseguests
Strain at pushing into it

+ + +

Anything at all
Will do

Desire is not the transparent medium through which some inchoate impulse takes on form and movement. Rather, it’s coeval with language. More than that, desire resists the effort to lucidity that language attempts to assert. For desire, writes Judith Butler, “will be that which guarantees a certain opacity in language, an opacity that language can enact and display, but without which it cannot operate.” Any cogent theory of desire, then, will also be a theory of poesis, one that advances the liberation of reality from the machine of insensate consumer practice, which is also the practice of everyday language. This is precisely what DuCharme accomplishes in these austere and frequently haunting poems. Unease with language, an acute sensitivity to its betrayals, is coupled with the irrepressible longing of the poem to attain not some final arbiter of representation, but the ongoing availability of a highly contingent collaboration.

I knew I could find you there
In this place, holy to both of us
Though for reasons not located on any map
Terminus, or grace
The make-believe & infected decision
Idols, or an audience
Degree shed in moonlight

In this, the closing poem of the series, DuCharme addresses the beloved, the reader, and language all at once. For all three are linked by their evasiveness, their refusal to be pinned down, and their unsettling tendency to become “Idols, or an audience,” that is, the chimerical force the Other exerts on us, compelling us to re-question our own subject positions. The place we occupy then, with respect to all three, is provisional -- both central and marginal. It is also, recalling Plato’s image of Eros as interlocutor, the ceaseless shuttling inbetween. Like desire itself, language is a medium of endless fluidity and abrupt intransigence.

This view of desire does not seek to locate and pinpoint the Other through language in order to subjugate it. Rather, it welcomes and invites the homeostasis of reciprocity, by which self and other, subject and language, author and reader, mutually engender one another. Lacan’s originary misrecognition is reconfigured as a play of signs (and of bodies) offering not primordial lack, but plenitude.

I need desire, a substance lodged in black. I don’t believe in closure implying the strong poem, the wieldy senator. As if above her head were stirred with a kind of aching to be done. The vistas we liked best are subtle. It’s a secret we were eager to contain.

Between vista and containment the poem works its desire to be many and not one. But it also embraces absence, “the substance lodged in black,” more readily than presence, the old longing of the poem for closure. For closure forecloses the possibilities set in motion by poetic desire, which, like language itself, is always exceeding itself, always yearning for what lies beyond its boundary. If consciousness is in some way cognate with desire, and restlessly expansive, then what is the desire of desire if not more desire? Paradoxically, absence leads toward, not away from, fullness.

Choices

Which are not ours to make anymore ---
But name us

As surely as the conventions of the love poem, the desire
Series

Who are you, shadow I reach to touch

Mouth of straw
Which becomes my unbidding

Because it can never quite sing of its complete fulfillment, because it exists as differance, desire is also that which continually performs its own valediction.

Marked throughout by an elegant spareness, Desire Series dislocates the familiar locutions of “beauty.” Lyricism’s freight of song is still tinged with its ancient impulsion to praise, but it’s newly charged by the ambiguous rifts between the richness of our inner lives and the increasing dissonance of the world. To live in the continuum of our utterance requires a total discipline. In Mark DuCharme’s poetry, the resistance to an archaic transparency, to outmoded ways of saying, means oscillating in the boundary zone between the daily necessity to express and the obligation to transgress.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Poetry Chronicles, Part 1-Lyn Hejinian's "Letters Not About Love"

Perhaps the chief problem in writing a blog, at least for me, is how to keep it going, how to supply new material. This is one of the reasons I put off starting one for so long. There are certain obligations attached with this enterprise, after all. So far, I've managed to post, on average, about once a week. But since invention all too often fails one -- and since I have no desire to post about events in my life; this is a blog about the life of the mind, thank you -- I think I have hit upon a solution, gentle readers.

Starting with this post, I will be putting up from time to time items that generally fit the description of "Poetry Chronicles." The chronicles will consist largely of things I've already written -- reports on readings, introductions of readers at Naropa, and so forth. In some cases, these will be items I posted to the Buffalo Poetics Listserv before The Fall, when it became a moderated list in the wake of the Flame Wars. My hope is that these stop-gaps will still hold some interest, either historically, or for what is said about the work itself.

Now read on ...

Friday, May 1, Rachel Levitsky and I drove down to the University of Denver to hear Lyn Hejinian show a film, give a talk, and read some poems. We also gorged ourselves on mussels and bouillabaise at a very nice French restaurant -- but that’s another story.

Present at one or both portions of the event: moderator Cole Swensen, Bin Ramke, Rikki Ducornet, Beth Nugent, Jack Collom, Jennifer Heath, Michael Friedman, Anselm Hollo, Andrew Schelling, Bobbie Hawkins, Laura Mullen, Cedar Sigo and Jeni Olin. And a host of grad students.

The film -- “Letters Not About Love” -- is remarkable. Directed by Jacki Ochs (incidentally, sister to Hejinian’s husband Larry Ochs, who himself provided a very powerful and haunting jazz score), it concerns itself with an exchange of letters between Hejinian and Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko from 1988-1993. Ochs asked the poets to shape their correspondence around a set of words -- Home, Grandmother, Neighbor, Poverty, Book, Work, Violence, Window -- which she gave them. The results form a sustained dialogue/meditation on two cultures, two idioms, and ultimately, the nature of dialogue and language itself.

As the poets’ conversation progresses, it underscores the way language both encodes against loss, in a very daily and personal way -- the loss of a sense of place, the loss of memory, of the quotidian -- and is vulnerable to that very same loss and slippage. The letter figures both as a method of communication that creates its own self-contained and ongoing continuum and a form of expression anxious about its existence, about the sense of dislocation, physical and emotional, that the act of writing letters has always sought to overcome.

Throughout, the richness of Jacki Ochs’ stream of visual images, combined with the music of Larry Ochs, provides a continual counterpoint, adding additional layers of “language” to the spoken words (read by the actress Lili Taylor -- Lyn said that Jacki thought her voice too “girlish” - and dialect coach Viktor Hurd).

Afterwards, some of the discussion of the film (both public and private) focused on the erotics of letter writing: on the subtle tensions that pre-inhabit the word and guide it; on the richness and power of letter-writing as a genre, a genre too often relegated to the ghettoized status of “women’s writing.” Hejinian spoke about “negotiating the gulf between words and things -- not to fill it [that gulf] -- but to enter it, as a realm of possibility -- a poetics of possibility...” An old White Russian woman who first read Arkadii’s letters for her warned her that he was a demon and wanted to possess her soul. And Lyn quoted Shklovsky: “the role of art is to kill pessimism.”

“Letters Not About Love” is, of course, precisely and ironically about love -- about the eros of logos. And the logos of eros. It has been screened at a number of film festivals, received at least one award, but at present lacks a distributor. Lyn remarked that exhibitors were nervous about its “lack of an ending.” (Haven’t they read “The Rejection of Closure”?).

After a break for dinner, Hejinian gave a reading, beginning with a selection of twelve poems from “Oxhota” -- the section based on expatriate jazz musician Steve Lacy’s list of the 12 components of the Russian soul: Betrayal, Death, Conspiracy, Truth, etc., which Lyn says got a good laugh from her Russian friends.

This was followed by new work -- an appropriately sprightly and altogether enchanting poem called “Happily,” a meditation on chance, sequence and agency:

“Is happiness the name for our involuntary complicity with chance?”

She closed the evening with a long portion from “A Border Comedy” (forthcoming soon from Sun & Moon). She described the genesis of this work as having arisen from her collaboration with Jack Collom in “Wicker,” which having enjoyed so much she attempted to try on her own -- a kind of self-collaboration where a line would be written, then put away to undergo some form of effacement -- and then added on to as if written by another.

“However lively the imagination it still benefits from contact with reality.”

“But a man doesn’t dump his mother in a horsepond just because it starts to rain.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Frank Samperi

Frank Samperi occupies a special place in late modernist poetry – a Catholic Objectivist, as much steeped in Dante as Zukofsky – and possessed of a sweetness and light that is dazzling in its clarity and painful in its simplicity: inasmuch as pain erases itself into light and light is the final erasure and confirmation: a word that speaks everything, once and for all, a wing covering the night in itself, and wholeness begins.

To me, he has always been a bridge figure – quite forgotten, it’s true – someone who links the ardor of modernism’s love of the new with the ancient rhythms of belief, confession, testament, and vision. “All things that are are light,” writes Pound, quoting Duns Scotus.

But this is not a light of dissolution. It is the light of solid objects, seen as if for the first time, drenched in the aura that is the angelic failure of the material, its holy signal flare, anointing the drowned souls and the burning of our bodies as they climb the westward road through collapse and ruin, gathering the grains of the lonely. To be a poet of ruined light is to be completely devotional (pace John Taggart).

Frank Samperi’s daughter, Claudia Samperi-Warren, has recently set up a website devoted to her father’s work. It is well worth a visit:

http://poetfranksamperi.blogspot.com/

Friday, August 20, 2010

Defending Theory or, The Death of Frank Kermode

At this late date, what's loosely referred to in the press as "theory" should need no defense. And yet the death of Frank Kermode, at least as reported by the NY Times, has brought out the grumbling resentniks of the Old Guard, still sore about how liberal humanism and the so-called "freedom of the reader," as Verlyn Klinkenborg put it today in the Op-Ed page, have acquired a kind of asterisk, a spot of shame, which is of course nothing more than the taxonomic structure they already possessed.

Kermode had a healthy disregard for the "deformed prose," as he called it, of many second-rate theorists striving to emulate the first generation of mostly French masters. But it's odd, to say the least, that someone who revered Eliot and Joyce, for instance, two of the major exemplars of modernist difficulty, would take such an issue with a similar evolution in the complexity of critical writing.

This complexity, which necessarily produces awkward or convoluted writing, is a sign of language thinking in a new way, of moving from interpretation to decoding, from the hermeneutic to the semiotic, as Paul de Man puts it in "Resistance to Theory." This turn to language requires a new form. But, as de Man notes, the resistance to theory, which persists, will always persist, is a resistance to "the use of language about language." It removes language from its unmarked center as an unquestioned arbiter of meaning and sees it as a contingent, culturally constructed phenomenon.

The Times obit carries the headline "wrote with style." The implication is that style is always the marker of clarity and concision, that it is transparent, that it carries meaning across from writer to reader without the need to question the mode of conveyance. But true style is predicated on difficulty. It is the force of originality bending language, doing violence to it, re-inventing and exploiting its full resources. It as much as about endarkenment as enlightenment.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Poetics of Failure, Part 2

A poem can fail in many ways. But to be a truly failed poem it must take care to fail in the right way.

There are failures of omission and failures of commission. Failures to fund the poem's vocabulary with the necessary depth of observation and experience and failures of overdetermination and ambition, These are failures of style and technique, of craft, and therefore minor.

True failure begins with the recognition that speech is always already crippled. That poetry itself is a species of disability and the struggle to pronounce its own condition from out of a deep aphasia. Whatever we say falls short of the mark. The mark itself, which draws its authority from putative degrees of fidelity, is often little more than a fetish for precision, a coded by-word for positivism.

To fall short of the mark, of course, is to acknowledge the possibility of failure and is a topos as old as poetry itself: the humility of the speaking subject before the immediacy of experience.

The kind of failure I have in mind encompasses some of this. But to fail poetically means more than merely writing poems that don't quite do justice to themselves; it means more than a lifetime's labor spent on work that goes unseen and unheard. Failure must be understood allegorically, as Benjamin meant it. At one level it involves the point of friction and potential breakdown between choice and multiplicity and the potential for unsaying in every form of saying.

At bottom, though, failure is about time. Hence, the need to understand it as allegory, as a telling otherwise about collapse and inanition. About writing in the ruins. About writing as ruins.

“In the world of allegory,” explains Paul de Man, “time is the originary constitutive category. The meaning constituted by the allegorical sign can consist only in the repetition of a previous sign with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority.”

The anxiety of poetic form is always an anxiety with respect to time. How can the poem articulate an image of time that includes the persistence of the human?

To fail is to perversely attain a sense of the limits of language. It is to engage the difficulty of time as such, the obdurate resistance by which my words reach out to you, reader, wherever you are and in so saying I have created you, ala Whitman, from nothing more than the rhetoric of distension and hope.

Failure is a kenotic value. It is apophatic; speech that erases speech in order to unburden itself of time. But besides a commitment to emptying out, or the insufficiency of language to forge a grammar of being, failure signifies the embrace of the broken, of the fragment. It names the desire for what Adorno calls "micrology," which is the desire for redemption in non-transcendental, non-teleological terms.

What saves history from the catastrophe of reification, Benjamin asserts, is an allegorical form of transmission that exhibits the fissures within it. The failed poem is the poem that commits to those fissures. A historian, he writes, or a poet, I might add:

"Stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the time of the now which is shot through with chips of Messianic time."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Matter & Spirit

For the spiritual tradition of the west, matter has largely been viewed as something to be contained and regulated; dangerous, shifty, unstable, and prone to regressive tendencies. It is to be infused and uplifted by spirit, transformed and made over till it glows. But this top-down, Platonist approach is also responsible for much of the hostile and oppositional attitudes that have everywhere degraded both the bodies of others, especially women, as well as the environment. Its legitimacy is summed up by the proto-Enlightenment pronouncement of Bacon that Nature is to be subdued.

Following Foucault’s remark that it’s been the body that’s been trapped inside the soul all this time and not the other way around, we might ask ourselves: what if the real goal of spirit is not, as we have for so long imagined, to descend into and animate an intransigent material world? What if instead it is matter that must come to the aid of spirit? What if spirit is that which stands in need of being redeemed?

It is not enough, of course, merely to reverse the binary. Any provocations on behalf of matter must be made with a view toward locating what is oppositional within its own logic while at the same time holding the idea of spirit, that is to say, form, in tension; not collapsing it into a straw man.

Such a shift stands behind Tim Morton’s bold notion of an “ecology without nature.” A liberating dissolution of binaries that would free us from the tyranny of the mind/nature split. The turn toward immanence is a call to re-envision the role earth and the body play in making a sense of the sacred possible. And what is the sacred, in this sense, if not the ever renewable potential of that-which-is-possible. I often think of Swift’s wry quatrain, which Yeats quotes in his preface to A Vision:

Matter, wise logicians say,
Cannot without a form subsist.
But form, say I as well as they,
Must fail if matter bring no grist.

It is that delightful and untranslatable English word, “grist,” which provides the hinge here. Spirit’s grist, to be effectual at all, must become embodied. It must come down to earth, as DH Lawrence knew, and be enflamed by the eros of matter. Enter Marcuse and all the angels of the poor, singing.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Poetics of Failure

There are two ways to view the idea of the poetics of failure. The first is in the material sense: the life and career of the poet as a disappointment of ambition or achievement, marked by a history of neglect or indifference from the reading public, critics and publishers Poets who might be thought of this way include Oppen, Bunting, and Niedecker. Yet all of them managed to acquire well-deserved second acts late in life. Failure was redeemed, and became part of their myth, encoded as a perversely positive value, part of the larger trope of poetic privation.

The second category of failure is more difficult to define. It involves a willed aesthetic of the failed poem, built around a form of writing that incorporates the logic of failure, that writing can never be adequate to itself. As Beckett puts it: “Fail again. Fail better.” This is a familiar enough trope, outlined most thoroughly by Blanchot, but in certain writers it becomes not only ascendant, but comes to stand for the kernel of the writer’s accomplishment. Kafka and Beckett are perhaps the primary examples, while Baudelaire is failure’s patron saint. Benjamin belongs to both groups, and because he recognized the poetics of failure early on in both Baudelaire, Kafka and himself, is the exemplary diagnostician of failure.

But if failure means recognizing the limits of the poem, it also represents a stubborn persistence in the ability to signify even after the hermetic mode of poetry has contaminated the Orphic.

(More on this later, after our move to Amherst).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kenotic Speech

The idea of kenotic speech, of a self-emptying utterance that seeks zero as the point of plenitude and negation as the space of fullness, runs through poets from Oppen and Palmer to Andrew Joron. Maurice Blanchot takes up this impulse in several of his essays on poetry in The Work of Fire. In commenting on Rene Char, for instance, he writes:

"The poem goes toward absence, but it is to reconstruct total reality with it ... the search for totality, in all its forms, is the poetic claim par excellence, a claim in which the impossibility of being accomplished is included as its condition" (Work of Fire 104).

Similarly, in his essay on Holderlin, he remarks that “the language of the poem is nothing but the retention, the transmission of its own impossibility” (WF 126). Perhaps Blanchot's most eloquent exposition of this principle of kenotic speech comes in his essay on Mallarme:

"What does writing care about? To free us from what is … this liberation is accomplished by the strange possibility we have of creating emptiness around us, putting a distance between us and things. This possibility is genuine … because it is linked to the deepest feeling of our existence—anguish, say some, boredom, says Mallarme … it corresponds exactly to the function of writing, whose role is to replaced the thing with its absence, the object with its ‘vibratory disappearance.’ Literature’s law is this movement toward something else, toward a beyond that yet escapes us because it cannot be, and of it we grasp only ‘the knowing lack,’ that ‘we have.’ It is this lack, this emptiness, this vacant space that is the purpose and true creation of language" (WF 40).

This resonates with Allan Grossman's pronouncements in The Sighted Singer: “Orphic song is the speech of the world after it has ceased to be world, and its subject is the speech of the world before it has become world” (365). This recursive relationship between speech and absence, speech and presence – the world gone and the world returned – comprises the heart of kenotic poetics.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Re-Runs: Watching Steven Spielberg

My good friend D, who's a bit younger than I am, recently expressed surprise when I turned up my nose at Jurassic Park. “You don’t like it?” he asked, incredulous. “That’s a great film!”* But even allowing for generational differences in the cultural production of taste, Jurassic Park is not a great film, not even by Spielberg’s standards. And it’s only mildly entertaining. The best thing that can be said about Jurassic Park, bits and pieces of which I watched again on AMC while taking breaks from my Oppen chapter, is that it aspires to be a theme park. Which is rather ingenious, in a way, if deeply cynical. It’s a B-movie weighted down with the hubris of an A-budget and a first-rate cast. Where it should be nimble, it lumbers about clumsily. Indeed, the most pleasurable moments are watching the reaction shots of two pros, the ineffable Laura Dern and the canny Sam O’Neill.

All the JP films are scripted with B-movie logic, but only JP-2 actually delivers the juice: as a re-make of Gorgo, it’s fast, down, and dirty. It can hold its head high alongside such classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gwangi. Though in keeping with the Spielberg template, it can’t forgo shamelessly exploiting the audience with the plight of the child-in-peril. So many of Spielberg’s films are about broken families, of course, but the way he employs the spectacle of terrified children in JP is shameless. (He uses the same gambit in War of the Worlds, but despite Dakota Fanning’s glazed state of terror she can’t quite upstage the hyper-self-conscious and frenetic Tom Cruise).

Jurassic Park on one level is little more than a remake of Jaws, a kind of “Island of the Land Sharks.” But since the monsters are extinct, which is to say, dead and resurrected, then the drama becomes a battle with ghosts, with the idea of the past itself, all as a way to vindicate the triumph of the present.

JP's scale is also a perfect metaphor for the metastasis of the director’s ambition. Designed by turns to produce massive moments of shock and wonder, its whole art consists in invoking the sublime only to reduce it to the kitsch. This is one definition of populist art. It reminds me of Oppen’s disappointment with Carl Sandburg, whose initial impact in conveying the shock of the stockyards decayed into sentimentalism.

Still, there are quick pleasures to be had in JP. If the film's first half is a laborious, elephantine exercise in staging the reptilian sublime as a parable of hubris (in high hubristic fashion), with the thrills all coming from the human invading the wild, then the leaner second half gives us the tighter and spookier thrills of the wild invading the domestic. Velicoraptors in the kitchen!

But seeing it again set me to thinking of one of my favorite Spielberg films; the overlooked Catch Me If You Can. Besides being expertly constructed, with very little pleading for the audience’s affections (despite its broken family theme), the real subject of the movie is the artist as counterfeiter: the producer of his own alternative system of value. It’s hard not to read it as Spielberg’s spiritual autobiography, an allegory for the filmmaker’s art which, as Orson Welles knew better than anyone, consists alternately of deception and surprise.

Which leads me to speculate that Spielberg’s oscillation between two contrary impulses in American filmmaking – Wellsian theatricality and Fordian populism – may help to explain why nothing he has ever made, including the sincere failure of Schindler’s List, has ever really satisfied. He’s too calculating an entertainer (meaning he doesn’t trust his audience) to give pathos without sentimentality, yet too much of an ironist to trust his own extraordinary technical gifts. That’s why a slight film that is nearly all technique, Raiders of the Lost Ark, may actually be his finest. All the affect is in the style.

* Still, as Jay Cocks once sagely remarked to me, there are films that are great experiences, and then there are great films.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ride Lonesome: Oppen and Boetticher

In thinking about Oppen and his place among his contemporaries, inevitable comparisons suggest themselves between his work and that of artists like Rothko and Newman, or Samuel Beckett, all devotees of silence and absence, and each of whom treated intimately with trauma, with the ghosts of history and the unspeakability of the disaster.

But another context suggests itself as well, somewhat lower down on the distribution chain of cultural production, but one no less compelling. I’m thinking here of the remarkable series of films made in the late 50s by director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy, and actor Randolph Scott. The so-called Ranown Westerns (named for the production company of Scott and Harry Brown), as distinctive in their mythic tropology and aesthetic minimalism (a result of the starvation budget the studio gave them) as John Ford’s are in their robust expansiveness, tell the same obsessive story over and over again. Scott plays a man of constant sorrow, a traumatized crusader seeking to avenge or regain dignity for the dead, usually his never-seen wife (the consummate ghost figure), who’s been murdered by either Indians or outlaws.

The spareness and austerity of Scott’s presence – he seems to be made of nothing but wood, sweat and leather – and the starkness of the landscape around California’s Mt. Whitney, where each of the films is set, offer an intriguing set of apposite tropes to place alongside Oppen’s stripped down poems, which themselves enact a similar drama of trauma, austerity, and painful recall. Above all, Oppen’s poems carry the weight of the pledge: the vow taken by the Good Man to right a wrong. Maybe this is just my own sentimental investment in a certain redemptive model of heroic masculinity, but it’s a reading I find highly attractive nonetheless.

It seems pretty unlikely that Oppen ever saw these films, since their initial release run coincided with his time in Mexico. I can’t imagine they ever enjoyed any retrospectives in the San Francisco theaters of the 70s (where I got my own film education at places like the Castro and the Surf), but they may have shown up on late night TV. What unites Oppen and Boetticher (I can hear Menand saying this with his tight-lipped smile of ironic bemusement) is, of course, the Cold War. What else?

But having said this – acknowledging the cultural rescue script of the imperiled feminine and the virtues of civilization she embodies – doesn’t begin to answer to the fullness of the aesthetic experience that both Oppen’s poems and Boetticher’s films provide. Really, they both seem rooted in the war. For each, the ghost is the scene of writing. In dealing with disaster, with remnants, with haunting, with promises, they show how the consequence of fulfilling a promise may require an act of violence. That is the price of culture. Boetticher, I think, endorsed this view without qualms, for that is obviously the genre convention of Western. But Oppen, who dealt with life as it is, never made peace with that. Still, he would agree with Scott's character in Ride Lonesome, when he says, "there are some things a man can't ride around."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bad Poems by Great Poets: Oppen's "The Zulu Girl"

The bad poems by great poets seldom feature in critical discussions. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps a reluctance to speak ill of revered figures. Or simply an inability to agree on what makes a poem bad. When bathos, for instance, is openly pursued as a desirable poetic attribute by the Flarfistas, then all bets are off. But long before Flarf, the traditional notion of what constituted aesthetic value had undergone an important sea change. Nevertheless, great poets do write bad poems. Which suggests to me a topic ripe for expansion.

Case in point: George Oppen's "The Zulu Girl." As far as I can tell, this poem has escaped commentary by the major critics. Peter Nicholls' George Oppen and The Fate of Modernism is silent on it. Likewise, Michael Davidson sees fit not to annotate it in his otherwise exemplary notes to the New Collected Poems. Apparently it did not enjoy serial publication, nor is there any reference to the photographic source Oppen used. It’s possible that Mike Heller or Rachel Blau DuPlessis have taken notice of it, or that someone mentions it in the Man and Poet volume. But it’s also understandable why none of them would. It’s an embarrassment.

The Zulu Girl

Her breasts
Naked, the soft
Small hollow in the flesh
Near the arm pit, the tendons
Presenting the gentle breasts
So boldly, tipped

With her intimate
Nerves

That touched, would touch her
Deeply—she stands
In the wild grasses.

“Zulu Girl” appears in 1965’s This in Which. What interests me here, aside from the obvious thing to say, namely, that it’s a somewhat classy version of National Geographic porn, is the tone. Oppen’s gaze and his commitment to a minimalist reduction are exactly the same as any other person or object he might treat. Yet one can’t help but feel that this is a case of Objectivist sincerity being badly abused. There’s a distinct uneasiness reading about the poet as he imagines himself touching this unnamed woman’s breasts and her vivid response. The tone invites the reader to place the poem in a quasi-anthropological/"Family of Man" context – an artifact of the Cold War. But the intent seems purely salacious. You have to wonder what Mary made of this poem.

Oppen has a thing for women’s tendons. In section 32, “Of Being Numerous,” he writes:

And the beauty of women, the perfect tendons
Under the skin

When he touches on the erotic, most of the time, it is delicately, discreetly. Mary’s hips are praised in Discrete Series – “she lies, hip high” – and comes in elsewhere, here and there, for ardent, if muted, veneration. But Oppen does not permit himself to write of her naked beauty or her sexuality openly. If he ever did, we do not have those poems. And I rather suspect he did not. Instead the poem of the erotic gaze is reserved for the photograph of a semi-nude African woman. A colonial subject, the double other, subjected to the male gaze.

“In the wild grasses.” The phrase, and the whole mood of “Zulu Girl,” call to mind “Psalm, which also appears in This in Which. "Psalm" is most frequently commented on as a poem that achieves a kind of Heideggerian Gelassenheit, an opening of the field. But it can equally be read as an erotic poem – “the wild deer bedding down … the soft lips/Nuzzle.” And in that context, what to make of “The small nouns/Crying faith” – if not an erotic paroxysm? Maybe “Zulu Girl,” as awkward as it is, should really be read as “Psalm’s” companion piece: a poem in which ontology’s exterior is the erotic body?

P.S. -- This just in. Harold Schimmel's essay from "Man and Poet," "(On) Discrete Series" (makes you nostalgic for the days when parentheses in titles were all the rage, almost ...), wittily connects the Zulu breasts, if I may be permitted to refer to them that way, to the section from DS beginning:

White, From the
Under arm of T

The red globe.

In a rather Benjaminian way, by which inorganic objects modernistically and perversely teem with erotic contours and potential, Schimmel suggests we read "the red globe" as a nipple. So perhaps we can also read breast for "tendon" in GO's repressed lexicon of the erotic. I'm just saying.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On Wallace Stevens (briefly)

Stevens’ poems are arenas for engaging in metaphysical skirmishes. The tone of these combats is often so subdued, so rarified, that it belies the ferocity and violence attending the stakes. For Stevens, the legacy of the Romantics and the French Symbolists consists most vitally as a means for pushing back against the encroachments of an instrumentalist reality, of clearing a space for the human, which is itself sustained, if not produced, by this enterprise of imagination.

Nature in Stevens is never merely the natural, nor is it a source for anything so simple as images by which to stage his oppositional agon. He is not interested in using nature as an environmental scold like Gary Snyder might, nor does he turn it into a kitsch backdrop for delicate melodramas as does Mary Oliver. Rather, nature is the metaphysical Other; the theater of dream in which we can break and re-make ourselves, not as we were (never that), but as we always longed we might be – luminous, shot through with a language of pure vocables.

Friday, June 11, 2010

On Science Fiction as Secular Theology

Frederic Jameson has notably defined science fiction as the literary field most attentive to and invested in the utopian desires of modernity. It is less concerned with dramatizing actual futures as it is with dreaming the possibility of nascent or emergent transformations in the social order and with the technological remapping of human potentiality.

In many ways the best SF (not always the most literary, though it often is) offers nothing less than a poetics of becoming. It accomplishes this through what Darko Suvin, perhaps borrowing from the Russian Formalists, calls “cognitive estrangement,” that is, it presents our own familiar customs and institutions, our habitus, through a glass darkly, as the future, or the alien, that is also the human, now radically defamiliarized.

Yet if Jameson’s approach focuses almost exclusively on SF as an engine for re-imagining and resisting late capital, as in the works of Dick, Gibson, or Robinson, the genre seems equally driven to articulate the late capital desire for radical new economies of secular theology.

With its tropes of technological transcendence, science fiction has long been the domain for representing late, or postsecular, theology as the driver of social evolution. The recent renascence of space opera by authors like Iain Banks, Dan Simmons, and Alastair Reynolds, to name a few, provides a sophisticated re-tooling or upgrade of that hoary, but deeply pleasurable, subgenre.

In Banks’ post-scarcity Culture novel, Excession, for instance, the eponymous and black-body object of the title is revealed to be a sentient probe from another dimension/parallel universe, the artifact of a society vastly more advanced than even the artificial Minds of the Culture. Its enigmatic behavior serves as kind of cosmic MacGuffin, an aporia that drives the plot purely by its negative or passive qualities. In some ways it represents the incursion of the tremendum, a visitation from outside, and, without stretching the point too far, the event or Ereignis, a kind of messianic presence which fails since no one is capable of receiving it.

Similarly, in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion/Endymion novels, the messianic figure of Aenea leads humanity outside of its bondage to both a network of parasitic AIs and a tyrannical future Catholic church by triggering a latent ability to travel through deep space by means of the Void That Binds, a kind of Buddhist/quantum device that permeates the deep structure of reality. (This metaphysical liberation is surely an homage to the conclusion of Alfred Bester's 1951 classic, The Stars My Destination, which Chip Delany once described to me as the greatest SF novel ever written. I could not agree more).

The post-secular sublime – or as Istvan Csiscery-Ronay calls it, the sf sublime – appears in the novels of Reynolds through the canny use of scale. Deep space and even deeper time – stellar distances and eons of development across millions of light-years – form a background of wonder against which the human protagonists play out their dramas and intrigues, challenging and resisting these unimaginable limit fields even as the narrative insists on how dwarfed they are by them.

Equally crucial to this sense of the sublime are the various modes of posthuman or alien transcendence which occur. Baseline humanity, as Reynolds calls it, is an antique. In the Revelation Space series, Conjoining, or the Transenlightenment -- the implantation of nanobots – allows humans to participate in a massive neural network at vastly accelerated rates of cognitive processing. In House of Suns, the Great Leap Forward occurs through cloning. Both technologies impart transcendent powers to human beings (though in HS the clones, or shatterlings, become virtually god-like: immortal, possessed of magical technologies, including near-sentient starships). Even death is circumvented by the power to download consciousness onto software that produces a total personality simulation capable of full interaction.

The catch, as in all Reynolds’ novels, is that transcendence does not obviate traditional moral and ethical dilemmas. On the contrary, it intensifies them. While all the books feature exciting space battles and chases, the main problem for the characters is always a moral one: how does an interstellar super-culture confront historical disaster?

In the uneven, but compelling, Revelation Space, the richly satisfying Redemption Ark, and the tedious and disappointing Absolution Gap, it was the crisis of extinction posed by a machine-race (The Inhibitors) seeking to safeguard an evolutionary galactic balance through surgical genocides of emergent stellar species. In House of Suns, the dilemma is reversed: humanity is compelled to come to terms with its complicity in the genocide of a machine race. Both plots play out, on a galactic stage, Benjamin’s dialectical aporia: that the foundations of civilized order are inseparable from the barbarism it overcomes and represses.

(Coming to terms with "giga-death" (a phrase from Banks' Look to Windward) -- the xenocidal destruction of trillions -- features in all three novelists. Reynolds in particular, like Greg Bear in his Forge of God diptych, explores the potentially pessimistic ethical -- and Darwinian -- implications of the Fermi paradox; namely, that EM-noisy planetary cultures bring down doom on themselves because, as Bear puts it, "the forest is full of wolves," i.e. self-replicating machines intent on preserving their hegemony. While on the one hand this impulse is laudable since it lends a compelling moral and historically engaged seriousness to SF, it also leaves them open to charges of exploiting crimes against humanity for the sake of entertainment. On the other hand, what other genre is so daring? It's tempting to call this new branch of space opera "SF after Auschwitz").

Reynolds’ universes are deeply imbued with historical skepticism, which shifts in mood from the benignly comic (as in the names of the meta-civilizations which come and go: the Perpetual Commonwealth, the High Benevolence, the Pantropic Nexus, etc.) to Spenglerian melancholy. Empire, in his novels, is a kind of pathology. It can only ever end badly, leaving traces of strangely beautiful and enigmatic ruins across the galaxy. This, too, is part of the sublime.

None of these writers are quite the alienated Gnostic modernists that say, Lovecraft is. Their universes may be dangerous, but overall they are hospitable, that is to say. anthropic. The human, or rather the posthuman (always rendered somewhat anachronistically, of course, that is, on a less adventurous imaginative register than Octavia Butler, for example), has a place in it. But that place is also occupied by a pervasive sense of mystery and awe and it is this that imparts to their work, at its best, an uncanny shiver of the sublime that is radiant with theological desire.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thinking the Messianic

Up till now, this blog -- despite its provocative title -- has remained conspicuously silent on the topic of the messianic. Partly this was out of a desire not to be limited by a single topic, which seemed dreary and confining. But it was also because I was finding my way into the form of blogging itself, rather timidly, to be sure.

The initial entry paired two thoughts on the messianic by Benjamin and Derrida as a kind of bracket or limit-set for how to think about the messianic and what it offers us. And what, exactly, is that? As directly as possible, it has to do with the recovery of a certain domain of experience, a recovery that will allow not only for the survival of the personal, but the potential redemption of history. Above all, it is deeply construed with the vigilance of the promise, of potentiality itself.

In some way I can as yet only intuit, experience and the messianic are intimately linked, conjoined, even. There is much to say on this, some of which I may return to here, but the bulk of which will be reserved for my dissertation on Oppen, Palmer, DuPlessis and the afterlives of Objectivist poetry.

For now, I reprint here an essay that originally appeared in English Language Notes 44.1. It's a belabored piece, very heavy-going, but it represents my first attempts to think through this knot about five or six years ago.

The Breaking of the Vessels: Toward a Lyric of Messianic Form

“God becomes God when all creatures speak God forth: there ‘God’ is born.”
— Meister Eckhart, German Sermon 27

“To bear witness to God is precisely not to state this extraordinary word.”
— Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being

1.

If it is to speak at all of spirit, to what must lyric address itself? To what bear witness? Spirit falls, a catastrophe. First, in its unlooked-for coming; still more in its harrowing departure. The space that spirit opens in us is a rending. A wound. It enters us as another language, made of a strangeness we can barely begin to comprehend. Like trauma, spirit refuses to be internalized, except as the unassimilated and ongoing aftershock of its impact and wake. Thereafter, it haunts us.

2.

The poem that speaks of spirit today must find a way to work inside this catastrophe. It must take up residence in the tension between saying and not-saying, between Eckhart’s cataphatic nomination of God through the reciprocity of human speech and Levinas’s apophatic interdiction on the word for God itself. This new lyric (it resists history even as it succumbs to it) must inhabit the crisis of form arising from the opposition between utterance and silence. For to say “spirit” is to enter an aporia in which form itself breaks open, rended by the trauma, the raptus, of that which haunts language from outside. The invasion of mysterium tremendum. In the face of such an invasion, the old franchise on the rhetoric of transcendence dissolves. The catastrophe of spirit’s onset plunges lyric into loss.

Yet lyric, which is a swing of grace, antiphonal gesture toward an empty horizon, lyric still longs to say its originary affirmation, even if it is a song of mourning. That there is no origin is no impediment. The poem speaks always already in response-to; this is the condition of its founding and its brokenness. Likewise the desire for spirit comes after we are broken. The performance of tikkun which lyric undertakes occurs as a response to the brokenness of the world. In the fissure opened up by the breaking of being, by God’s self-recusal, the absolute need to bear witness to this evacuation descends. Lyric must become messianic.

The messianic lyric rejects the thematizing of spirit, that foreclosure of being into a circumscribed category, flush with certitude, the anathema of mystics. For it, presence is an event, not a state. The swift arc of a radical disruption, not a steady continuum. The poem wishing to say spirit looks askance at the valorizing proclamation of alleluia and its unmediated invocation of presence, even as it relishes the musical play of the word itself, its pure semiosis. It longs instead for the interstices in such code words as “glory,” those spaces of a radiant-going-beyond where the desire for God empties language of the name for God.

“God becomes God when all creatures speak God forth.” In this reciprocal equation, Eckhart places the speech act – logos – at the center of an autotelic poetics of lallation: the word nominates the world and the world incarnates the word. At the same time, like Levinas, he implores: “I pray God to make me free of God.” It is only by erasing “God” from God that the messianic poet wishing to speak spirit may truly escape the overdetermination of the divine. To say by way of unsaying is crucial for the poem that longs to utter the most ruined and impossible of words. Apophasis is not simply a rhetorical inversion, but the eucharistic movement of form that responds most urgently to the trauma of spirit.

If the messianic lyric must avoid naming God as such, it does so because radical form acts as the manifestation of revelation’s mystery. The poem’s ability to show forth this mystery derives its authority from the intercession of difference, from the keeping in play of spirit’s indeterminable status as a living force and not what Jean-Luc Marion has called an “idol of being.”

In many ways, the question of saying spirit is intimately enmeshed with the question of form. Spirit’s rupture requires a radical form that can speak mystery as mystery, as the presence of the unnamable, and not as a fetish.

Yet doesn’t relinquishing what Derrida terms the “master name” of Being place a still greater strain on the poetic work of tikkun? Like the trauma inflicted by the Lurianic withdrawal of God from the world after the breaking of the vessels, différance situates the messianic poem deep within its moment of impoverishment, in the acknowledgement of the frailty and inadequacy of all our forms of address for God.

This nadir is pure gift: it offers itself as the basis for a radical spiritual economy. After différance, after the trauma of God’s caesura, the messianic lyric abandons thematization so that it may revel in the dance of spirit’s seizure and evacuation, re-enacting the wound through a poetics that will transform loss into plenitude. The fissure rent by différance offers a magnanimous breaking open, a liberation from the ossified regime of conventional sacred discourse.

The messianic lyric utters the trauma of spirit’s wounding apophatically, as a form able to say “spirit” as if for the first time. That this is an impossible saying does not deter it from saying it over and over as if each day were the Annunciation. Each moment the strait gate, as Benjamin says, through which the Messiah might enter. Messianic lyric invests the horizon of its call with the expectation of another – the impossible response that must come from outside – what Jean-Louis Chretien calls “the disruptive suddenness of the unhoped for.” That which is ever ahead of us and always coming toward us, both already within and always outside of all expectation. In this way it seeks to guard spirit from spirit, refusing to reify the experience of spirit by turning it into the spiritual as such. Rather than genuflect before an outworn rhetoric of piety, it stages the brokenness of its own speech as the necessary condition for any genuine ebullitio of what stands beyond saying.

The messianic lyric generates its apophatic structure out its own brokenness and the world’s. This brokenness obliges it to render spirit as strange: outside. As something flashing up in the gaps between a totalizing fullness and an indeterminate emptiness. In the caesura that inaugurates spirit’s presence/absence (the “pure word” Hölderlin called it), in this khoric space kenosis – the breaking and emptying out of form – blooms into parousia and the fracturing of poetic form grows radical plenitude. The strangeness of being approaches as a haunting and a hovering, a profound uncertainty. To say this strangeness the poem must develop a strangeness of form capable of acknowledging it, however inadequately. Part of the strangeness of being is that being desires to escape being. To attain to an ex-cendence, as Levinas says. The lyric that would affirm such escape must pronounce it otherwise. Like Marion’s description of the eucharistic gift, the messianic lyric “anticipates what we will be, will see, will love: figura nostra … facing the gift we cannot yet welcome.”

Facing this gift means the poem must negate the history that enmires God. The peculiar power of the negative permits the poem to speak of God in such a way that the aporia of divine presence offers consolation from the very scene of the crime, the place of wounding and withdrawal. The trauma of God’s withdrawal from the world is generative: the primary occasion for the incursion of the unexpected.

Grace – arriving violently, in the breaking of the first set of Mosaic tablets, through the shattered forms of the vessels unable to hold the divine light – grace comes as both our belatedness – that is, the gulf of our distance from God – and the very condition that enables our rescue through the unhomed strangeness of radical form. In the messianic poem, grace appears as a kind of repetition compulsion: the annunciation, over and over again, of the enigma that refuses to yield itself to us from within the chasm of God’s night.

3.

“There will be new form, and this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else ... To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now. Being is constantly putting form in danger.”
— Samuel Beckett

Mallarme dreamt of a spiritualized book, a poem of the deeply immanent that would contain the entire world in an impossible transcendent text. Isn’t this the trans-tautological loop of Eckhartian poetics which names God to Godness through the reciprocating apostrophe of the world’s beings? That same apostrophe calls spirit to enter the poem in the doxology made possible by the rupture of form.

The poem rends spirit in order to render it as a response to the trauma of God’s silence, the kenotic departure from the world. What the divine has emptied, the poem must re-fill, wounding speech with the hope for a response whose power will carry us further into the surprise of the wound itself. Messianic poetics may be understood as an extravagant recovery of presence through the tropes for absence.

To speak of God is to speak of the original wound, the enigma of a trauma about a vanishing that whispers in fading echoes of a way to go beyond Being. Into the interstices of the Not-Yet.

In Howard Schwartz’s re-telling of the classic Talmudic tale, “The Golden Dove,” a traveling rabbi forgets to say his morning prayers before setting out on the road. Returning to the campsite, he finishes his ritual, when he sees a nub of gold peeking through the ground. Brushing the dirt away from it, he pries loose a golden dove. But the warmth of his hands transforms the statue to a living bird, which straightaway flies up to Heaven and perches on a branch outside the Messiah’s window. From time to time the dove flies back down to earth to judge if humanity is ready for the Messiah’s coming. But each time we are not and so the dove returns to its branch, where it remains silent for three days before resuming its songs of promise and deferral.

The messianic lyric also says, “Not yet.” Meaning, everything is still promised, still to come. Like the golden dove, it arrives not merely to give consolation, but to offer the promise of promise, the gift of pure potentiality, without which nothing can be accomplished. The poem is a temporal construct Inside the strictures of time completion can never become complete. Just so, the tikkun that the poem undertakes will never be finished. The reparation of Being that the poem aims for must itself be thought of as broken. It must be thought of as open, underway, in the continual act of remembering a forgotten prayer, continually in search of a new form, a new way to speak of and to being’s brokenness, to the abject condition of our spiritual poverty, so that to recognize the acute sovereignty of our being is to acknowledge at the same time how deeply estranged we are from it.

The dream of the pure word that could say spirit or being as it is, of the Adamic language which could, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, “deliver us to the thing itself,” has a long history. It is this history - the history of the downfall of the word – that the messianic lyric must work inside of even as it strives to break free of it. Writing of Benjamin’s dream of this pre-Babel idiom, Agamben observes: “What remains unsayable and unsaid in every language is therefore precisely what every language means and wants to say: pure language, the expressionless word.” The empty word. The kenotic word. The word that survives after all meaning has been drained away from the broken vessel so that all we may hear of it is a lingering tone, a resonance, an echo of distant bird song from a window outside the house of the Messiah. An impossible word. A song that is both the sign for and the body of the messianic poem as it inhabits the catastrophe of its broken prayer, not in exile, but in radical immanence. The messianic lyric is always broken, that is, never original, but continually haunted by what has preceded it, a speech without a beginning. It always asks: “when?” To which its own reply is never anything but, “yes.”