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)

Monday, December 26, 2011

For The New Year

"When the bells jostle in the tower
the hollow night amid,
then on my tongue the taste is sour
of all I ever did."

-- A.E. Housman

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gnostic Frequencies

I'm delighted to announce the publication of my second full-length collection of poems, Gnostic Frequencies, from Tod Thilleman's Spuyten Duyvil. It's available through Spuyten Duyvil's website and from Amazon, and will be listed next year with Small Press Distribution.


"Patrick Pritchett’s Gnostic Frequencies boldly and brilliantly takes up the Romantic quest to make an infinite Book. Just as Pritchett’s previous volume Burn offered a visionary revision of the Joan of Arc legend, here the poet ‘rewrites the myth’ of the Archive as a self-renewing ruin of absolute meaning, ‘a scripting of / impossible flowers.’ In musical measures, Pritchett aligns ancient paradoxes of the inspirited Word with post-postmodern meditations on the virtual body. This new book stands as a major contribution to the tradition of American radical lyricism."
-- Andrew Joron

The following is excerpted from the book's End Notes:

What is a gnostic frequency? And how do we hear one? Is it the poem we tune into, in the dark? The strange language in the middle of the way, on route, that speaks from the other side of knowing, the voice (who speaks?) that murmurs, in the middle of the night, from within not-knowing, out of hope for another kind of knowing? The poem that desires, above everything else, some small vision of the otherwise?

This is a book of poems about tuning into the hidden legacies and hermetic inheritances of modernism. A book of endarkening, as Duncan might put it, of a way of knowing that is encrypted, not in musty séances and etiolated rituals, but in the quickening mysteries of logos as it arises from, yields to, and reshapes matter. Becoming gnostic means listening to the heretical speech of the caesura, to the extravagant pulses and rhythms of the unspeakable as it swirls about us, allowing language itself to speak.

The poems of Gnostic Frequencies pay tribute to the thread of hermeticism that runs from high modernism to postmodernism. They make special demands of the reader in as much as they ask her to undergo an immersion in the a-signifying stream of language as though it were a form of rhapsodomancy. They are deliberately excessive, intentionally overflowing with an excess of signification and repetition, a kind of archaic ebullience.

A gnostic poetics (always lower-case) militates against positivism, against totality, against knowing-as-such. Such a stance invites charges of obscurantism. But what gnostic poetics really calls for is not a reading of the world, but a way to undergo it. Taken together, they comprise a haphazard map of my desire to write a postmodern sophianic poem. But any wisdom to be found here will be of a purely musical, self-cancelling, order.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Task of Art

“The task of the arts is to rescue from cognitive and rational oblivion our embodied experience and the standing of the unique, particular things as the proper objects of such experience, albeit only in the form of a reminder or a promise” (7).

J.M. Bernstein, Against voluptuous bodies: late modernism and the meaning of painting

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drafting Beyond The Ending: On Rachel Blau DuPlessis

I'm very pleased to announce the appearance of Drafting Beyond The Ending, a special feature on the work of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, at Jacket 2's site. Curated by myself, it offers thirteen essays, some of them substantial, all of them generous with insight, plus two book reviews and a new poem by DuPlessis.

My deep thanks to Julia Bloch, Mike Hennessey, and everyone else on the Jacket team who worked so hard to produce this.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Drafting Beyond the Ending – Patrick Pritchett

Un-scene, ur-new: the history of the longpoem & The Collage Poems of Drafts – Ron Silliman

Openings: Some Notes on the Political in Drafts – Eric Keenaghan

“The Force of an Intervention”: DuPlessis’ Response to Oppen in “Draft 85: Hard Copy” — Libbie Rifkin

Envoy: Postings on the Digital Form –Paul Jaussen

How to Mourn-Touch: The Redactive Prosodies of Rachel Blau DuPlessis – CJ Martin

Take Your Time: The Ethics of the Event in Drafts – Catherine Taylor

A Little Yod and a Rocking Enormity: Reading Drafts – Daniel Bouchard

Inverting the Middle: Turning Points in Drafts – Thomas Devaney

“The page is slowly turning black”: Torques: Drafts 58-57 — Harriet Tarlo

“All serifs are seraphim”: Midrash as the Angel of History – Patrick Pritchett

At the Critical/Poetic Boundary: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Arguments with Adorno – Naomi Shulman

Drafts and The Epic Moment – Bob Perelman

Drafts and Fragments: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ (Counter-) Poundian Project – Alan Golding

Ghost Tracks: Reading the Signs in Pitch: Drafts 77-95 – Chris Tysh

On Pitch, with Special Reference to “Hard Copy” - CJ Martin

Debris Field – Patrick Pritchett

Draft 109: Wall Newspaper – Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cool Hand Luke: What Louis Menand Gets Right – and Not So Right -- about Eliot & Modernism

I’ve written about Luke Menand here before and my problem, if it even is one, with his compelling brand of intellectual history. Just to be clear here: I came away from my experience as his teaching assistant for “Art & Thought in the Cold War” at Harvard with nothing but admiration. He is a brilliant lecturer, a consummate professional, and despite what appears to be at first a slightly distant, somewhat awkward, reserve, stemming entirely, I think, from an intense shyness, a decent, down to earth guy.


My frustration with the way he often frames his accounts of cultural history is inseparable from my fascination with the appeal of his style. As David Bromwich notes, somewhat snarkily, in his review of American Studies, once Menand covers something, it stays covered. Case closed. Bromwich is vexed, though, and he can’t be alone, in wondering what it is, exactly, that Menand stands for in any of his summary pronouncements. It’s less a matter of evading a position, then an aversion to taking positions at all. He’s like the Cheshire cat of intellectual history, a sly smile fading out over the scene of writing.

The success of that writing hinges on appealing to a reader’s craving for being in the know. Menand satisfies this craving with a carefully qualified performance of knowingness. But its often achieved more through rhetorical strategies than analytical persuasion. The fascination is frustrating – how does he do what he does? Where is that shaky line drawn, exactly?

In his new review of T.S. Eliot’s two-volume letters Menand draws on his earlier account of how Eliot invented himself. That book was about Eliot’s self-fashioning as a modernist. Indeed, self-fashioning is the thread that runs through many Menand essays. Such an approach provides a bright hook but I suspect Menand’s interest in it – whether writing of Holmes and James, Kerouac and MacDonald, or Friedan and Warhol – runs deeper than that. It’s not just that such a framing of literary and cultural history lines up with his pragmatist approach: things turn out the way they do because people are the way they are. There’s something autobiographical, or autotelic, to it as well. It takes a self-fashioner to know one.


What Menand gets right about Eliot is his centrality for the New Critics and the evolution of the modern English Dept. What annoys me about this is the reductiveness of such an explanation, as though modernism came about because Eliot had a bad case of the yips. Marked by his characteristic cannyness, his seductive sense of giving the reader the inside scoop, he somewhat naively follows the Hugh Kenner model – modernism was hatched on the spot by the valiant Men of 1914 (Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Lewis). I ate this up the first time I read The Pound Era, when I was 20. But there’s no room in this superhero origin story for Woolf, Richardson, HD, Moore, Stein, Loy, Cather, Williams, Hughes, or Stevens. Lawrence is slightingly alluded to in his clever (and pragmatic) riff on modernism as a turn inward and below the waist.

If this protest seems excessive, try to imagine this: a Menand essay (or one by the Salinger-idolizing Adam Gopnik -- Salinger? Really? But then The New Yorker is nothing if not self-congratulatory) of equal gravity and full-dress staging on the correspondence of William Carlos Williams. Right.

Menand is terrific at assessing the relation of the individual talent to the tradition of institutional history; not so good at detailing the fine grain of modernism as it actually happened. Granted, it’s a review of TSE’s letters – not a grand overview of a moment. That said, the bias of the piece is to collapse the moment into Eliot’s hollow soul. To reduce modernism to the Men of 1914 is rather like claiming that postmodernist poetry in America sprang from Lowell’s Life Studies, without mentioning Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Creeley, Ginsberg, and Baraka.



Reading The New Yorker piece alongside Michael Levenson’s excellent new book, Modernism, offers a useful counterpoint. Levenson, taking the wider range of reference that a book-length study allows, places Eliot’s prewar poetry alongside Blaise Cendrars. The value of such a comparison is that it rejects “the clarity of the contrast,” as he puts it, inviting us to “recognize the sheer spread of experiment” that marked this moment. But of course Levenson, a distinguished
scholar, is writing for a different audience.


This is where Menand as scholar hews a bit too closely to The New Yorker’s house style and its commitment to entertain. It’s a style that he’s both ably critiqued and exemplified. Scholarship and journalism are uneasy bedfellows, and the need to produce popularizing accounts of complex historical and aesthetic moments often leads a writer to lean too much toward his audience. I suspect Menand doesn’t so much acknowledge as wish to abolish the distinction. This is part of his success and charm as a writer. The Metaphysical Club, for instance, though dutifully more circumspect in tone, nevertheless reads like a very very long New Yorker article. (And much like a New Yorker piece, it all boils down to a simple comforting explanation: the Civil War produced American modernism out of the pragmatist’s aversion to totalizing theories). That is one of the reasons for its enormous appeal – the book is a sheer pleasure to read. And it's what I love about Menand’s work: he sees no reason why smart writing about difficult subjects shouldn’t also be pleasurable.

(Hence this slightly left-handed homage: as Ben Jonson translates Quintillian on writing: "First, seek to emulate the best").

In one of his essays – on Trilling, I think – he remarks that the process of becoming a writer is rooted in pleasure; it arises from wanting to learn how to make sentences the way someone like Trilling does. It’s a model I subscribe to myself. It’s something every writer feels, I think. Yet in treating such a significant figure as Eliot, the pleasure tends to get in the way of the history; the need to score the witty apercu overshadows the entanglements and ambiguities of modernism. T.S. Eliot didn’t invent modernism so much as suffer it.

Menand reproduces without comment Pound's famously flabbergasted remark to Harriet Monroe about Eliot having modernized himself. But did he really? This trucking in moth-balled myth does modernist studies no good. As Menand himself notes, "Prufrock" could not have been written without the example of Jule LaForgue (nor, before him, Baudelaire). So much for autogenesis.


Nor did Eliot, as Menand’s very good book on him puts it, even discover modernism. Rather, he made himself into a modernist through a combination of a violent, that is, original style, and some shrewd (if now rather hollow) obiter dicta which captivated the imagination and practice of a generation of scholars in search of a method. That it spread like crabgrass is no achievement on Eliot’s part, even if he did little to discourage it. Here’s where I could do with a little less pragmatist bottom-lining and a little more Frankfurt-style dialectics.

Menand is very good at locating Eliot’s poetics as both a symptom and a critique of modernity. And he’s certainly right, and funny, about the way the Notes to “The Waste Land” have been read by critics as some kind of paratextual holy of holies. It’s all in all a deft summation of a career whose influence it’s difficult to overestimate. But that deftness, which is driven more by narrative concerns than the needs of literary history, also feels impoverished; marked as much by what it excludes as what it includes. He’s rather too cavalier about TSE’s involvement with Action Francaise, while his account of Eliot’s marriage to Vivien strains for an impersonal and unsympathetic tone that is greatly at odds with the acute misery of the couple.

What Menand seems to find most admirable in Eliot is not the poetry, nor even the powerful early criticism, but the pace and resolve of Eliot’s industry. It’s not so much what he did as the impact that he had which he finds impressive, even enviable. That the critic should pay homage to the critic is no surprise. But is Eliot still, nearly a century after the publication of “The Waste Land,” “the most important figure in 20th Century English language literary culture”? I thought we’d moved beyond the Great Man cult. Menand’s co-editor for The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Lawrence Rainey, makes a more subtle case in his essay on Pound/Eliot about the critical obsession with literary hierarchies, and even Marjorie Perloff, whom Rainey is riffing on, seems, in her “Avant-garde Eliot,” to edge carefully toward their position, re-claiming early Eliot as an exotic species for her prewar garden of the avant-garde.

I’m not sure I buy it.

What’s at stake here, really? Verifying that Ivor Richards was right all along in consecrating Eliot as the Next Big Thing and that time and consequence have done nothing to change that? Eliot’s sphinx-like qualities lend him to all manner of template-making and revisionary ratios. we can read whatever we want into The Man Who Was Not There -- But Who Really Was. Personally, I’m at a loss as how to account for the distance between my own intoxicated enthusiasm for his pre-“Ash Wednesday” work when I was young and my defensive guardedness when I try to teach “Prufrock” or “The Waste Land” all these years later. What’s changed? Well, for one thing, I've learned a lot more about what modernism is and how it got that way. Same poem, different page.


Which is to say that all these years later it's Dr. Williams of Rutherford, NJ who seems to me more and more to claim the cardinal role in the early avant-garde.
Spring & All
, recently re-issued in a beautiful facsimile edition by New Directions, came out in 1923, one year after "The Waste Land" set off its detonation, first in The Dial, then in the Boni & Liveright book, with the newly added Notes. (Rainey presents the definitive textual history of its publication, including all the background negotiations conducted by Pound and John Quinn -- who deserves his own monograph for his role in modernism -- and the extraordinary amount of money the poem fetched its author). And of course, Williams saw the writing on the wall. As he noted later, in his "Autobiography," the appearance of "The Waste Land" was “the great disaster to our letters — it gave the poem back to the classroom.”


More and more, Eliot's "modernism" looks like an extended freak-out about the erosion of self and the disappearance of the past -- one node in Marshall Berman's account of modernity -- while WCW's breakthrough book appears, alongside Stein's Tender Buttons, as the other node -- celebratory and truly innovative -- the singular exemplar of a modernism that was truly modern -- that is, that attended to the new while it contended with the ghosts of the old. "The Waste Land" mourned the dispersal of the Great Traditiion. Spring and All unapologetically made the case for a modernism without the tears.*


Eliot may have invented, willy-nilly, the modern English dept. Though even here Menand's account is biased in favor of the cult of genius. The trend toward a quantitative metrics in literary study was already underway. It would be more accurate to say TSE was its poster boy. At any rate, the tautology that places him as its fountainhead is also one that suppresses an enormous, vital, and equally significant history of literary development that opposed the Eliotic method and continues to flourish today. The history as Menand gives it is a bit too pat, and altogether too settled. The case is not closed.

* I credit Ron Silliman with making the case that nudged me to this consideration, That, and teaching the book for the first time last spring to my class at Amherst College, a week or so after the section on Eliot.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fanmail from Some Flounder

Each year now, for nearly a decade, Steve Evans, at the University of Maine-Orono, has been performing the heroic service of inviting poets to share the 11 titles that have most engaged or excited them over the past year. You can read my list, with comments, here.

The great benefit of Steve's collation is that it allows one to catch up with, or at least be alerted to, the many poetry titles that time and attention span make it impossible to keep up with. Lists, of course, are all about bias, about fixing boundaries and establishing genealogies. A list is desire's argument with transience. Even the most erratic constellation invites pattern recognition. My own, I can't help but notice, speaks to my proclivities for a visionary angularity that has not entirely forsaken the somewhat shop-soiled shibboleth of meaning.

Here are the titles of seven other books of poetry that I found crucial, dazzling, or simply beautiful.

R.H.W. Dillard | What Is Owed the Dead | Factory Hollow | 2011

Michael Price | Doombook | The Figures | 1998

Anna Moschovakis | You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake | Coffee House | 2011

Timothy Donnelly | The Cloud Corporation | Wave Books | 2010

Peter Gizzi | Threshold Songs | Wesleyan | 2011

Srikanth Reddy | Voyager | U Cal Press | 2011

Linda Norton | The Public Gardens | Pressed Wafer | 2011

Monday, September 5, 2011

Remembering September 11

N.B. -- this was written on 9/19/01 and published not long after in the now defunct Boulder Arts Paper. Thanks to Jennifer Heath for running it.

Psalm 9.11


"All my pretty ones?
Did you say all?
What, all
At one fell swoop?"


1.

Gone

Sun in triage, gone

Wilderness of smoke –
hoop of blasted

[ ]

O gone

deluge I am
going to the end

Speech of madness
that would extinguish every name

Calamity that crushes us into
prayer

Into
make my silence
a flame that won’t
go out


2.

Cold water
for the laving
of wounds

Colder
than the surface
of the moon

Under cloud
they fall
they turn

Pour cold water
on their eyes
the dead who burn


3.

Weep
it’s OK to burn

Write
it’s OK to weep

Blank
to the furthest
horizon

What is
living

What is
tide

becomes us in a sweep
of grass, grace


4.

The sundering boom gapes
Who spills, who folds, who falls away

Dust is air, washing over
Is no water &
the beauty of their forms

skyline escarpment stutters,

it is evening—zoom to limb
to house, to rosary

Hell is
sunlight on the toe
of a shoe

Ich bin Ich bin Ich bin
Be all my sins remembered


5.

By the waters of X
I sat down and.

Cold wind
from the furnace
of broken syllables.


6.

Ship this whisper
as music

Be here lovely inside shadow
ache together under storm

the dead are forever
the meaning of any

moment held to
& dissolved


7.

And the point in the spectrum
where all lights become one

announces only
itself.

Beyond
that no one holds

the lone lumen
of stone

but stands
inside
a room

the sound of a voice
at the end

who will mark
my love

when she goes?

Who will stay?


8.


And dropped each
one
down

Past reach
of dire lyre

Song now gone
flume consuming

Tasked by
blast

Unknot
the clot
of living

Wind burn gasp

All peace ceases
out of doom
resumed

Catastrophe
blaze
apostrophe

O
day open

O
open day


9.


Yet say this also:

After saying everything
everything
remains to be said

Living the Impossible or, 9/11

(Note; this was written on 09/19/01 and first appeared in The Boulder Arts Paper).

Out of all the images I saw on TV – jets impacting, buildings burning, collapsing, smoke roaring out in a choking shroud – one returns unbidden, over and over: a man in a suit falling head downwards along the length of one of the towers, tiny arms and legs flailing, starting to go into a slow spin. It seemed endless, his falling, then mercifully the footage stopped. And at that point I thought, “I'm on the edge of breaking down completely…”

*

If anything at all is clear to us from The Event (and very little is) it is that the old responses are no longer available to us. I've felt like Samuel Beckett these past few days: consumed by a desire to say something, having no means to say it, along with the overwhelming obligation to say it anyway.

A friend of mine remarked to me that the first casualty of war is not truth, but language. Bush’s naive appeal to the ultimate villain – “evil” – is not just a gross simplification of a vastly complex historical moment; it’s an invitation to resume our sleepwalking through history. I feel that what we’re really being called to by this calamity is of another order altogether: not revenge, certainly; it goes beyond even justice. It presents itself instead as the call to completely recalibrate the role America plays at large. Such considerations will not provide an “answer” to the Bin Ladens of the world. The only answer to hate is love, as MLK once said, but though we’ve arrived at the point in our history where it seems more necessary than ever, it’s doubtful that compassion will be adopted as the philosophical underpinning for all future foreign policy. Nevertheless, regardless of any impact on the rest of the world it might have, an examination of the enormous blindspot in our perilously conceived self-image and how it funds our actions might form the smallest of beginnings to an urgently needed metanoia.

After the First World War, the French poet Paul Valery observed grimly that “the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. Elam, Nineveh and Babylon were beautiful names. France, England and Russia are beautiful names. Lusitania is a beautiful name.” So is New York City. So is Osama bin Laden.

*

The morning of the attack I gave a presentation on tropes to my graduate pro-seminar. We sat around the large table stunned and shell-shocked. It seemed absurd. What could be more trivial, more irrelevant, I asked the class, than discussing poetic language? But now more than ever, it’s important that we study poetry. Because in the coming days and weeks ordinary language will undergo hideous deformations as it contorts itself into all kinds of rhetorical postures. Because poetry – and the figural language of poetry – helps us to cope with crisis. It gives a shape to our mourning.

Because the poem will always be equal to the occasion of any human event. Because more than anything else, the poem is that exquisite instrument that enables us to recover and transform loss. It makes the absent present once again. It provides us with a profound form of consolation simply through the performance of its utterance.

Adorno was not wrong when he said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What the disaster invites us into, what it forces us to consider, is how all forms of culture are underwritten by barbarity, that even the most refined expressions of our culture are built out of it. Not to write poetry would, of course, be another kind of disaster. Because if we don’t, then we’re done for.

To go on after The Event will be unimaginably difficult. What can sustain us? If poetry fails to lift us, if language breaks down and proves inadequate to the task of recovery, where do we turn? How do we carry on?

One way is suggested in a recent commentary on the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa by Jacques Derrida, who advances an astonishing idea about forgiveness:

"Yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the one thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin,’ then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible."

This is what we are being called to in this moment: to respond to the unimaginable by performing the impossible, the total and radical act of forgiving the starkly unforgivable. Can we do it? The real question is: can we afford not to do it? We must contemplate again the bleak, two-line parable that came out of the devastation of the death camps, which runs simply, “At Auschwitz, where was God?” And its reply: “Where was man?” Forgiveness here does not imply the forgoing of justice or the inevitable punic demands of the state. As Kristeva notes, forgiveness breaks the chain of cause and effect. It's caesura of temporal logic frees us from the downward spiral of bitterness, vindictiveness, and hate.

However we choose to answer to this harrowing moment, wherever it leads us, and whatever else may come, either by retaliation or by continuing terror attacks, one thing is certain: the task of holding on to the human will occur inside the demands that an impossible compassion lays upon us.

Writing the Disaster or, 9/11

As the day draws closer this week for marking the ten-year commemoration of 9/11, with all its accompanying commentary, it's good to remember the words of Maurice Blanchot from his hermetic text on the Holocaust: "The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact ... the disaster takes care of everything ... the disaster is the gift, it gives the disaster."

This Sunday, 9/11/11, I will attend the birthday party of an 8-year old friend named Miles. We will ride a train through a park. We will play miniature golf (always a favorite). And that is how I will mark the anniversary of this event.

But, for what it's worth, I will offer in subsequent posts here portions of my initial reaction to 9/11, which first appeared in The Boulder Arts Paper, thanks to its editor, Jennifer Heath.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Deaths of the Author

Not long after I arrived at Harvard, in 2006, Jane Gallop gave a mesmerizing talk that revisited Roland Barthes' famous essay, "The Death of the Author." (Though it was a Comp Lit event, I remember thinking "where are all the English faculty?" Maybe they, too, had died ...)

That talk -- expanded now -- forms the first chapter of her elegant and powerful new book, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time. Gallop turns the poststructuralist move of decentering the author to fresh account here, going beyond the necessary evacuation of subjective privilege to a moving engagement with the afterlife of the author as a haunting presence whose shadow still fills us with desire.

This is a book about the author as ghost -- a specter who continues to speak to and inspire us. It thinks the gap between the theoretical concept of the author's dethronement and the personal experience of losing writers we hold dear. In the tradition of the best theory, it insists that we cannot consider these things apart, but must always "think them together."

My notes on the lecture took the form of a poem. As I think back on it, perhaps one of the reasons I found her talk so stirring was that I had just lost my mother. The perverse idea of desiring the dead, not in a necrophiliac sense, but in the melancholy register of keeping their departure open, struck a deep chord. As Sebald writes (and as my notes on Solaris take up): "And so they are always returning to us the dead."

Everything hinges on that "and."


The Death of the Author
for Jane Gallop


If I were a writer, and dead, then how bright the sky at evening when evening is a word for making other words.

And how I would love to be dispersed across the sky, ashes thrown to the wind and someone’s beautiful eyes reducing me to a few precious details. Travelling outside whatever my life had been, joining me to a future that cannot know me, except as a toy that resurrects the destroyed.

If I were a writer and no longer a part of my story, but given over unseen to the birds at evensong, returning to the same life, the very same and yet different. Speaking warmly with strangers at the gate, skirting the paths through the park, spying on the couples who are kissing in their sleep, a part of the larger night where everything has already happened without me.

If I were a writer, and dead, I would enter the room of sudden desires. The one with salty snacks and glasses of whiskey. The book there where I had left it. Your eyes, your voice.

Whatever pierces me. Speeches me. Even now, dead, writes me.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Jacket Review of Michael Palmer's "Thread"

My review of Michael Palmer's Thread can now be read at at Jacket 2. Many thanks to Michelle Taransky for doing such a beautiful job with it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Scott Wannberg, 1953-2011

Scott Wannberg was the first poet I ever knew. We met in a dorm room in Mary Ward Hall on the San Francisco State campus, both of us high, no doubt, and giddy with the energy of having appointed ourselves young acolytes of the Word. It was the fall of 1975. Though I was only a freshman and he was in the MFA program studying with Stan Rice, he treated me like an equal. I knew almost nothing about poetry. My idea of it was pretty much confined to the whimsicalities of e.e. cummings. It’s safe to say that meeting Scott changed my life, dramatically.

It’s rare, I think, when one can point to a single event, a instant that defines one for good. When Scott stood up – he was an imposing figure: tall, fleshy, stoop-shouldered, with a shaggy mop of hair, sweating no matter what the temperature was – and began declaiming in his soft, rapid, slightly monotone but urgent cadence, the libretto to Pound’s “Canto LXXXI,” some basic code mutated at the root level. It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly everything I’ve done since has proceeded out of that moment.

Yet
Ere the season died a-cold
Borne upon a zephyr's shoulder
I rose through the aureate sky




I had no idea, of course, what any of it meant. Who Waller and Dowland were I would soon discover, combing through the library, while ABC of Reading propounded Pound’s argument that after Chaucer English poetry had drifted into a doldrums that only Golding's translations of Ovid finally rescued it from. (This kind of heretical counter-canon making was head-spinning stuff for the uninitiated). I didn’t even recognize that Pound’s deliberate archaisms were archaic. Which plagued my earliest efforts at poetry, a fact Kathleen Fraser kindly drew attention to in her workshop. But it was the music that drew me in, its huge sweeping tides washing over me.

Pound was not the only poet Scott introduced me to. Williams, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas, were part of the cascade. Each searing, each pivotal, in revealing the possibilities of poetry. But it was Scott’s boundless joy in them, his sensitive, passionate reading and engagement with them, and his own example of wildly fecund permission, of letting words fly where they may, that blew the doors off the hinges for me. Not that anything I wrote then was remotely good. It was only a beginning.

Each week, like a pied-piper of bohemian culture, Scott led a small merry band of us to the art houses in the city to see Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Carne, or Kubrick’s anesthetized epic, Barry Lyndon. Along the way, he was a non-stop compendium of high-low cultural citationality. Strother Martin was as important a figure to him as Pound or Williams. (I regret we never saw The Wild Bunch together; it wasn't until years later I finally viewed it). Being with Scott was expansive, blistering, tornadic, and finally, exhausting. Yet, in the middle of the whirlwind was an incredible kindness and a compassion for the least, the lowly and the suffering.



After that heady year, Scott returned to LA and Venice. We lost touch and I didn’t see him again till the early 90s when I ran across him at the legendary Dutton’s Books in Brentwood. (Ironically, I’d worked at its sister store on Laurel Canyon, run by Dave Dutton, a few years earlier without ever getting wind of this). By that time I was working in the movie business and had begun shifting from the poetry of Charles Wright and Mark Strand to Susan Howe and Michael Palmer. Scott, it seemed to me, had stayed true to his neo-beat origins, continuing to mine that vein even more deeply. It was entertaining, energetic work, long on comic schtick and short on the more lyrical and cerebral qualities I’d come to prize. After all those years we had little to say to one another, but it made me happy to see him spinning dervish-like in the flux of citational associations. He was still a galvanic spirit, ebullient and enfevered for the life of the Word.


What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Michael Palmer's "Thread"

Note: here are the first three paragraphs of my 4000 word review-essay of Palmer's newest book, Thread. The entire piece will appear sometime in September or October at Jacket 2's website. Thanks to Julia Bloch, Michelle Taransky, Al Filreis, and everyone who is part of the new J2 team for making it happen.

Against Elegy: Michael Palmer’s Book of the Dead

“Thread—Stanzas in Counterlight” is Michael Palmer’s Book of the Dead. The title series of his 9th full-length collection, these eighteen interlinked poems are not elegies in the traditional sense. Neither songs of lament, nor, strictly speaking, commemorations for the departed, they reconfigure the genre. In these extraordinary poems, among the most moving and powerful of his career, the dead appear as companions on the way, intimately joined to the enterprise of living. “Thread” transforms elegy into crystalline paleography – a writing before writing that is also beyond it. Here, the customary polarity between innocence and experience is reversed. Innocence is not what is lost; it can only be gained. It does not precede experience, but is produced by it. For innocence is not a category of purity outside the travails of experience, but a condition that is achieved only by passing through the sorrows of an arduous contingency. The poems in Thread amply testify to this. In “Transit,” for instance, the sight of Creeley’s final book, On Earth, spurs a mournful, yet consoling, recognition.

We’ve come

to the old
echoes again,
swallowed songs,
tongues of cloud and wind.

The delicious image of a “swallowed song” rides on a cascade of vowels. The old echoes go with us, through us, speak out of us, again. So many of these poems feel like fragments of an overheard conversation. Nearly every one of them trails a ghostly double, beckoning us, in their uncanny incompleteness, to listen for further, unheard melodies. In “Fragment After Dante,” the first of a three-part series, the poet finds himself stranded in the realm of shadows: “And I saw myself in the afterlife of rivers and fields/among the wandering souls and light-flecked paths” (34). Amid the suffering of the dead, the greatest torment is to hear them speak, “chatting about nothing,” yet failing to understand them. The second Dante fragment resonates with muted pain.

And she clasped my arm and said,
You, my son, who have lingered

too long among the dead, go
and return to the lighted shore

for those brief moments you have left (35).

In a haunting image, the speaker’s face transforms “from old to young” as she vanishes. Memory’s dream of what-was mingles promiscuously with its hope for the Not-Yet. Throughout, Thread generously acknowledges that its every word is merely on loan from “the thief’s journal,” Palmer’s phrase, by way of Genet, for the floating para-text of unowned language. This is elegy against elegy: not a quixotic defiance of mortality, but a deepening awareness of it; a way to write into and out of finitude.

Thinking of the dead this way enables Palmer to do away with appeals to the cult of the personal and its fetish for the unique. “The dead” in these poems name an experience in which loss is only another form of continuity. They are always near and yet irreparably distant. In this way, the poem occupies a Rilkean angelic topos: it circulates freely between the living and the dead without making any distinctions between them. To speak the dead this way is to place them in an order of belonging beyond sentimental coercion. They remain strange and vivid; sheltered within memory, but also outside it; irrefragably singular.

“Thread” inhabits the melancholy landscape familiar to Palmer’s readers, a place where language ratifies itself by signifying its own failure. Written under the agonizing sign of Saturn’s slowness, they are harrowing in their humility and directness. Simplicity here is neither a reduction nor a retreat, but the earned complexity of a late style in a late hour. To call “Threads” a tour de force would only defame it. These “threads” are addresses, colloquies, homages – unanswered questions that concentrate Palmer’s concerns for his art as a site for making counter-meanings, those micro-resistances that push back against the crushing sense of moral fatigue born of loss, suffering, and slaughter.

Poetry in Time of War

Note: this was originally written for a reading at Left Hand Books in Boulder, in March 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq.

“I have something incomprehensible to say, like birdsong during war.”
— Odysseas Elytis


People are fond of asking “How relevant is poetry in times of war?” As if war were somehow so radically different from other times of crisis when we naturally turn to poetry. Or as if poetry could only exist in some rare, hothouse environment that dissipates on contact with the so-called “real world.” As if the first great poem of the West wasn’t The Iliad.

The fact remains, however: poetry is never relevant. It is never relevant because whatever is relevant can be quickly made irrelevant. Poetry has not persisted on the basis of its relevancy, but rather, because it aims at the impossible task of saying itself outside of utilitarian ideology. The task it performs, if it performs anything, is an essentially utopian one. It takes place in a “nowhere” – a space that contests ideological inscription – and thereby affirms a scale of values in which Eros will always supersede history. That is why the best argument, indeed the only argument, that poets can make on behalf of poetry and against injustice is to continue to write poems, to continue to find a way to utter Dasein, as Heidegger might put it, in the time of the world’s night. A lyric on birdsong is every bit as powerful as Akhmatova’s “Requiem.”

This is not to say that the overtly “political” poem of protest or witnessing is somehow no longer needed. On the contrary, such poems of denunciation belong to an ancient tradition of articulating a committed disavowal of power and its machinations. The protest poem is simply a more pointed example of what poetry in general does: it opens up the possibility for a discourse of resistance; it permits us to speak out against the tyrannical on behalf of the human.

To say that poetry is not useful in a time of war, or at any time for that matter, is to say that language itself has no use. It is to measure the earth with a very mean scale and to judge human beings with all the nicety of the slaughterhouse. No matter how deranged the condition we afflict on one another, poetry will always be capable of forming a response. Because the poem is not a passive artifact for entombing bourgeois sentiment, but a prosthetic device for extending the range of the human, enabling it to tap into and register a wider dimension of experience and feeling than we are capable of unaided.

When language is treated as nothing but a tool for point-to-point communication, then words become instruments of domination. But when language unfolds the complex constellation of relationships that joins each of us to something greater than ourselves, then poetry may act as an ethical force that expands the possibilities for what we can say –that grows the limits of the real.

What can we say in a time when the abuse of power has become the status quo? Never enough — we can never say enough. And that is why we are compelled to keep saying it. That is why we enter language with humility – so that the poem might say something dangerous, something unsettling, something radically other.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Waterworks

The dog days are in full ascent here in Amherst. I feel overcome by a sweet inanition. Likewise, the blog is succumbing to drift. Behind the drift, I'm counting down the days till the semester shudders to life. So much to do! Class prep, that essay on Palmer. The MSA talk on Pound & Sobin. Etc. Still, this has been a very productive summer, and at the same time, a deeply relaxing one, the first in a long time.

Below is my review of E.L.Doctorow's The Waterworks. It originally ran in the now defunct LA View, in 1992, though I first read it in mss., with ELD's hand-written annotations in the margins, for Interscope Films. I fell in love with it and have taught it several times.

THE WATERWORKS

Like the moon, New York City holds one face to the light, the other in a perpetual umbra. In E. L. Doctorow’s eighth novel, The Waterworks, the hidden side of the city, its luna incognita, serves as both figure and ground in a dark moral fable about mortality, identity, hubris, and decay. Whether as a brooding meditation on the liquescent nature of history, with its endless shiftings and concealments, or as a modern valentine to New York City in the 1870s, The Waterworks complements Edith Wharton’s vision of the city in the same way that Blake’s Songs of Experience form a bitter refrain to his Songs of Innocence. This is the New York Garcia Lorca wrote about in 1929, a city in which the dawn has “four columns of mire and a hurricane of black pigeons,” where “furious swarming coins ...devour abandoned children.” Unleavened by Dickensian whimsy, it’s a harrowing trip through the sewers of Hell, lit by gas lamp.


Like Heinrich Schliemann excavating the successive layers of Troy’s ruins in search of Homer’s Ilium, Doctorow, beginning with Ragtime and continuing through World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate, has dug into the psychic strata of New York City to create a holographic portrait of American society that covers nearly 70 years. Only Gore Vidal has had the ambition to exceed that span of time in his series of novels chronicling the transition from Republic to Empire. But even Vidal, for all his prickly apostasy and intellectual acuity, can’t match Doctorow’s sheer lyrical largesse, which he lifts like a valedictory flare to illumine the names and faces of the past.

In his 1988 Paris Review interview, Doctorow described history not as “Newton’s perfect mechanical universe,” but as “constant sub-atomic chaos.” In such a state of turbulence causality breaks down. History is no longer a neatly condensed, monolithic tome, but a palimpsest scribbled over with innumerable, vying narratives, each underwritten by the protean stirrings of the unconscious self. The overweening assumption of modernity that is every civilization’s most “necessary illusion,” as Doctorow writes, melts down under such conditions, revealing “the skull beneath the skin.”

Early on in his career, Doctorow explored the use of the Western and science fiction genres in Welcome to Hard Times and Big As Life. Here he casts his story as a mystery, written in the ripping good-yarn style of Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson. The effectiveness of this deliberately slight approach swiftly becomes apparent. Only a mystery could unravel the secret soul of the city. That soul, “roiling, twisting, turning over on itself, forming and reforming... like a blown cloud,” is the subject of the novel’s narrator-protagonist, a world-weary newspaper editor named Mcllvaine.

Six years after Appomattox, New York City is in the thrall of Boss Tweed and his venal ring of politicians, cops, and cronies. It’s an era, pointedly not unlike our own, of extraordinary avarice and brutality, of orphans and outcasts, ragpickers and street gangs, gamblers, grifters and bloodsuckers. Not a detail of this ghastly carnival goes unobserved by McIlvaine, who somehow retains an unsullied core of romantic idealism. The newsman’s all-inclusive eye is not as jocular, though, as that of Walt Whitman. In this New York, the Song of Myself has been drowned out by the infernal lament of the masses. In a twilit world where, “the air, in cinders, sifts through the filigree of fire escapes and telegraph wires,” the lonesome McIlvaine develops a paternal affection for one of his young, free-lance book critics, the moody and melodramatic Martin Pemberton.

Martin, who sees himself as a one-man bulwark against the swollen tide of Philistines overrunning the city, is the bitterly estranged son of the powerful Augustus Pemberton, a merchant who made his fortune in the illicit Caribbean slave trade. Not long after his father’s death, Martin bursts in on McIlvaine with the news that he has seen Augustus alive, being ferried about the city in a mysterious white coach. A week later, Martin disappears.

The hunt for his missing protégé leads McIlvaine from Martin’s self-possessed fiancé, Emily Tisdale, whose fetching combination of virtue and voluptuousness leave the veteran newsman smitten, to the more worldly sophistication of Augustus’s young widow, Sarah. But it’s finally with the help of Martin’s best friend, the quixotic painter Harry Wheelwright, whose Goyaesque portraits of mutilated Civil War veterans depict the dismemberment of the age, that McIlvaine and police detective Edmund Donne conduct a midnight exhumation of the older Pemberton’s grave. Its contents reveal the outlines of a monstrous conspiracy by which Augustus and his brilliant and amoral physician, Dr. Sartorius, have ensnared both Martin and the homeless children of the city.

Yet the psychic duel between the prodigal son and his sinister father occupies only the tale’s margins. At the center of the book’s superlative tension stands the conflict between Donne and Sartorius. Donne is the ratiocinative sleuth par excellence, a brother to Poe’s Auguste Dupin and a paragon of integrity; Sartorius, an arrogant and imposing medical genius after the manner of a Jules Verne villain, a man whose heinous scientific experiments foreshadow the Faustian acts of the Nazi death-camp doctors.

For McIlvaine, the scribe and witness, the pursuit is embodied in a haunting image out of a dream — a boy’s blue-skinned corpse, floating in the Croton Holding Reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, the future site of the New York Central Library. In this drowned “ceremony of innocence” our cherished mantras about progress and civilization founder until we feel, like McIlvaine, “the oppression of a universe of water, inside and out, over the dead and the living.” The cultural foundations of our society, Doctorow seems to imply, are written on water. More than that, though, our mechanistic conception of the world, as espoused by Sartorius, has set into motion an irreconcilable duality that can only end only with our destruction.

Walter Benjamin once observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Doctorow’s triumph is that he embraces both of these themes without abandoning the hope for transcendence, however slight it may be. At once a chilling morality play and a rhapsodic elegy to a moribund culture, The Waterworks displays all the flux and panoply of 1870’s New York, in the words of its ardent narrator, “forever encased and frozen, aglitter and God-stunned.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Way Out West Part 4-The Wild Bunch

Like The Professionals, The Wild Bunch is driven by questions of loyalty, honor, the integrity of identity (both group and individual), and the ways in which the past mediates the present. The film revolves around an aging gang of outlaws who, after the fiasco of their latest robbery, attempt one last job before “retiring.” In the course of events, the Bunch aligns itself with a Mexican warlord, who forces them to choose between their own survival, or the betrayal of one of their own. Without any other organizing principle except the pact that binds them together, the Bunch choose to keep faith, a decision that sets in motion an apocalyptic shoot out as they take down a small army of corrupt Federales with them.


When the Wild Bunch first appear, they do so disguised as Army soldiers. The disguise acts as a sign of inverted identity, through which the prevailing cultural discourse of law and order is repudiated for the Bunch’s own internal code, as well as undermined for personal profit. Unlike the professionals, or Ben Trane, the Bunch do not see themselves belonging in any way to the larger discourse, nor are they concerned with re-affirming their identity by revisiting the sites of memory. As outlaws living on the margins, they have formed their own discourse, thriving on what their culture has excluded. More than Trane or Rico and Dolworth, the Bunch’s leader, the fiercely determined, yet melancholy, Pike Bishop (played by William Holden), registers the anxiety of this anchorless position when he remarks on the need to “think beyond our guns” since the days of the frontier are “closing fast.” This recognition carries an anxiety for him which no re-connection with the past can renew, as evidenced by this pointed exchange early on between Pike and his second, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine, who also appears in Vera Cruz):

Pike: “I just want to make one good score, then back off.”
Dutch: “Back off to what?”

The predicament of the Wild Bunch is that they are men without a past, outlaws whose lives have denied them even the de-ritualized sites of memory to which Pierre Nora refers. All they really share in common is the expansive anodyne of their laughter, which as a marker of the absurd hopelessness of their lives temporarily immunizes them from despair, permitting them to embrace their rootless situation. Laughter – crude, raucous, celebratory – as in the scene where the aging desperado Sykes mocks the Bunch after the loot from the payroll robbery turns out to be nothing but sacks full of metal washers – “here you are, with a handful of holes, a thumb up your ass, and a big grin to pass the time of day with” – laughter erupts as a singular gesture of defiance that is also the recognition of a life saturated by the melancholy of violence; a life that is nasty, brutish, and short, demanding a transgressive response that is a-historical. Laughter is the true site of memory for the exiled Bunch and while it is not enough to provide them with an enduring hedge against oblivion, it nevertheless stubbornly marks the boundary of the body inside a history that will not remember them.

Unlike the Professionals, the Bunch’s crossing the border carries no promise of hope, but rather is done disconsolately, after their disastrous shoot out in Starbuck. Surveying Mexico from the banks of the Rio Grande, Tector Gorch remarks that it “just looks like more of Texas.” To which Angel, the passionate idealist for whom Mexico is home (and thus, more than a site of memory, but a real, living place), retorts, “You have no eyes.” Later, when the pursuing bounty hunters, led by Pike’s betrayed companion, Deke (Robert Ryan, again intertextually cast as the hapless man of action), arrive at the river crossing, Deke asks, “What’s in Agua Verde?” (the nearest town), one of them derisively replies, “Mexicans. What else?” In The Wild Bunch, Mexico represents neither a site of memory for the central characters, Pike and Dutch, as it does in The Professionals, nor an opportunity for renewal as in Vera Cruz. Initially, it is merely a place for the Bunch to lay low, a region not of rebirth, but of derision and defeat.

This changes in the scene in which Angel takes the weary Bunch to his village. Here, they are feted in gala style by the friendly villagers. Even the fearsome Gorch Brothers frolic like children with a village maid who is the very picture of innocence. No longer a dusty watering hole, Agua Verde takes on the idyllic aspect of Paradise regained. As one of the village elders remarks to a bemused Pike, over the languid sounds of a guitar: “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” Fittingly, the dispossessed Bunch, who have nothing to “back off” to, find solace, however fleetingly, through a family of foreign strangers. This unabashed romanticism forms one strand for the film’s critique of the Western genre. Its brutal nihilism forms the other. By juxtaposing these strands, The Wild Bunch delivers a more complex and ambiguous reading of the possibility of renewal that is taken for granted in both Vera Cruz and The Professionals.

When Pike agrees to steal a shipment of Army rifles for the corrupt local tyrant Mapache, in exchange for the freedom of Angel, who has killed Mapache’s woman (Angel’s former lover), a chain of events is set into motion that irrevocably compromises the Bunch’s amoral spirit of anarchy with the idealism and honor of the impoverished rebel Mexicans. Though never explicitly suggested, the subtext of this arrangement seems to signify the formation and recognition of a familial bond between the dispossessed rebels and the equally dispossessed Bunch.

The story of the Bunch’s doom is in effect the story of their politicization. Dutch and Pike both state on several occasions their extreme dislike of Mapache’s bloodthirsty avarice and corruption, expressing a desire for a general uprising of the populace. When Pike initially suggests that Mapache’s simply another crook like themselves, operating on a larger scale, Dutch vociferously objects: “we don’t hang nobody!” Here, in its brutal kernel, is all we need to know about the code that bonds the Bunch together. Their politicizing – which is nothing more, really, than an uneasy, ad hoc alliance with the pueblo villagers (and by association, Pancho Villa, a distantly glimpsed presence in the background) who oppose Huerta and Mapache – remains in the end a deeply personal affair, one defined and motivated by their sense of loyalty (to Angel) and to their own honor.


Led by this code, then, the Bunch’s choice to join the cause of liberation is as close as the movie comes to attempting a resolution to the “crisis of memory” – the utter lack of any family or roots to which the Bunch can back off to. While little more than a pact for mutual survival, this code contains a kind of nascent social contract, one most forcefully expressed by Pike after the disastrous payroll heist in Starbuck, when the Bunch threatens to unravel. “When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can’t do that you’re like some animal. You’re finished. We’re finished. All of us.” Later on, Pike tells Angel, “If you ride with us, you don’t have a village.” These two statements form the moral underpinning of the film, and give rise to the final crisis for the Bunch.

In effect, the Bunch are their own village, and Pike’s struggle to give them some sense of identity, despite their inability to share in a site of memory, however debased, is one he cannot maintain for very long. In siding with Angel, the Bunch unknowingly take on Angel’s own fierce commitment, his deep sense of belonging, to the land and to his people. Without quite fully realizing it, they slide down the slippery slope of communal identity simply because it is the only thing, perhaps, that has ever resembled something in their lives to which they could “back off.” This is confirmed in the film’s final image of the border: the bridge over the Rio Grande which the Bunch destroy by dynamite after escaping over it with the stolen guns. The act of demolition, which symbolically bars them from returning to the United States, foreshadows the film’s bloody climax – a line which, once crossed over, permits no return.


The Wild Bunch, then, offers perhaps the ultimate expression of the logic of “regeneration through violence.” It is regeneration by violence carried to its final and lethally all-consuming endgame: apotheosis by apocalypse. More than that, though, the film demonstrates how the anxiety over the closing of the frontier – essentially, the foreclosure of the future – can collude with issues of collective memory, or its threatened erasure, in such a way as to create not redemption, as in the first two films, but nihilism and self-destruction. Ironically, it is The Bunch’s inability to ground themselves in a truly viable symbolic, as opposed to actual, past, as represented by sites of memory, that denies them access to an achievable future. For it is not only the frontier that is closing. It is memory itself – the localized, personally felt bond with a group or a region – that is being eradicated by the looming specter of history.

History, “analytical, critical, and secular,” is replacing the unstable text of memory, which Nora characterizes as existing in a state of “permanent evolution.” Like a new kind of cultural technology, history, which Nora observes is “perpetually suspicious of memory,” institutes a new mode of meaning production with which memory cannot compete. The Bunch’s separation from culture, then, is permanent and so, too, is their regression. Genuine regeneration, at least in the terms offered by the culture they have rejected, cannot occur. Engaged in what Richard Terdiman describes as “the intense struggle between repetition and innovation, between past and future,”the Bunch are destroyed because they do not possess a sufficient link to a past larger than themselves and therefore capable of funding a viable future.

Thus, the flashback montages of the Bunch’s raucous, life-affirming laughter, which director Peckinpah inserts at key moments in the narrative, do much more than serve as simple sentimental touchstones designed to cue a certain response from the viewer. They stand as pointed occasions for the force of living presence to spontaneously assert itself, reminding us that the fate of the Bunch is not simply that of outlaws living beyond the pale, but of humans who could not successfully negotiate the future because of their vexed relationship to the past. Nora notes that “memory is blind to all but the group it binds.” Simply put, the Wild Bunch are destroyed because they choose memory over history. In this sense, we are invited to compare their end to the tragic fate of similar marginalized groups, like the Mexicans peasants and native Americans who resisted assimilation into the cultural hegemony.

It is from out of this poignant framing of loss, I would suggest, that the film is able to generate such a tremendous attitude of warmth toward these savage and wayward men, paradoxically humanizing them at the point where, in another film, they would seem to be least human, namely, in the climactic bloodbath. As Pike says, “when you side with a man, you stay with him. If you can’t do that you’re like some animal.” It is precisely because this form of the social contract draws its power from memory, rather than history, that marks it as doomed.

Unlike the examples of psychological rebirth displayed in Vera Cruz and The Professionals, The Wild Bunch depicts a world in which Mexico can no longer function effectively as a trope for renewal. Instead, it offers a picture of the land south of the border as the place where the restorative powers of memory are chimerical, or bankrupt; where the past no longer has the power to mediate the present; and where anxiety for the future assumes its ultimate form: the last horizon, the final border, which is the crossing from life to death.

Though often referred to as both an elegy for the American West and for a certain style of more genteel filmmaking (after Peckinpah, the deluge), The Wild Bunch may also be read as a powerful elegy for memory itself. Its Götterdammerung-like staging of one last fatal border crossing sounds the knell not only for the frontier’s closing and the diminishment of local memory by absolutist history, but also for the kind of naive Western mythmaking by which Americans were able to reconcile themselves to the barbaric price they paid for their empire. With the eclipse of memory, the totalizing force of history becomes inescapable. More than that, though, the eclipse of memory marks a sea-change for the inner frontier where re-invention takes place, foreclosing the possibilities set in motion by desire, which is always exceeding itself, always yearning for what lies beyond its borders.


As Vera Cruz and The Professionals suggest, and The Wild Bunch powerfully enacts, the unstable logic of American nation-building, sutured together in the name of a dream of belonging, binds the drive to limitless expansion and aggrandizement on the one hand to the conserving movement toward stabilizing community on the other, only to fissure and split apart when followed to its inevitable and violent end.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Way Out West Part 3-The Professionals

With The Professionals, the Mexican foray takes on a decidedly more romantic posture. Superficially a captivity narrative of the kind first made popular by Mary Rowlandson in 1682, the story concerns four specialists who are hired by cattle and mining baron J. W. Grant to rescue his kidnapped Mexican wife from a Mexican rebel named Raza. It’s basically the Western as a caper movie. Lee Marvin as Rico is the group’s military expert and leader; Burt Lancaster’s Dolworth is the dynamite expert and philosophical jokester; Robert Ryan (Ehrengard), plays the empathetic horse master; and Woody Strode (Jake) the non pariel scout and tracker. These latter two characters are fairly marginal. Ryan acts as the designated innocent, constantly raising questions of a compassionate nature which experience gradually teaches him have no place in the world of the professionals. Within the group’s homosocial dynamic, he also functions as the non-combatant “wife,” whose chief duties revolve around healing and caretaking. As an African-American, Strode’s presence is an indicator of racial integration, albeit of a limited and rather patronizing variety. Given virtually no dialogue, he carries a bow and arrow for weapon: a sign that associates him with the savage.


The rescue mission is complicated by the fact that Rico and Dolworth once fought with Raza on behalf of the Revolution. It becomes more compromised still when they rescue Grant’s wife, Maria, only to find she is not a captive at all, but fervently in love with Jesus Raza (whose surname means “the people”) and a devout revolutionary herself. After numerous twists and turns, the professionals conclude that Grant himself is the real kidnapper. They return Maria to Raza and take up their old struggle once more.

As with Vera Cruz, Mexico in this scenario acts as a metaphor for rebirth, only much more emphatically since the movement of The Professionals depicts their journey south of the border as both a nostalgic and a literal journey into their own past. The first third of the film features numerous scenes in which Rico and Dolworth reminisce over obscure battles, fallen comrades, and lusty women. These almost idyllic scenes are accompanied by a jaunty cantina score which continually serves to remind us of the professionals’ passage not only through space, but time. Their journey into Mexico begins by offering the possibility of tapping into actual memories, but eventually they realize that history has overtaken these places and that the past is no longer available to them as it once was. As Nora notes, these sites come into being only because “of a memorial consciousness that has barely survived in a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it.”

When the professionals come upon an old graveyard, Dolworth ironically eulogizes it as “the cemetery of nameless men.” Nora observes that the “nostalgic dimension” of these sites “marks the rituals of a society without ritual.” And indeed, as Rico laments, he and Dolworth fought unnamed battles in Mexico which no one now remembers.

Although the anxiety about the past is muted by the veneer of macho bravado worn by the mercenaries, it suggests nonetheless “the crisis of memory” Richard Terdiman refers to in Present Past. For Terdiman, the “memory crisis” developed in post- revolutionary French culture during the early nineteenth-century as a result of “a sense that [the] past had somehow evaded memory, that recollection had ceased to integrate with consciousness. In this memory crisis the very coherence of time and subjectivity seemed disarticulated.” It is precisely this disarticulation, as it makes itself manifest in the two main professionals’ lives (we first see Rico as a lowly weapons trainer, while Dolworth is in jail for gambling debts) which their new sense of self-purpose seeks to amend. That they are able to do so completely is a mark of the film’s romanticism. (For as we shall see in the nihilistic The Wild Bunch, the logic of the border does not always permit such resolutions). The discovery of the truth about Maria’s allegiances, and of how Grant coerced her into marriage (staking a rapine claim on her analogous to America’s annexation of Mexican territory) allows the duo to reclaim their former allegiances from the grasp of disillusionment.


Maria (played with spitfire fervor by Claudia Cardinale) symbolizes Mexico itself, as well as the Revolution and the temps perdu of the professionals. Her erotic otherness (the Revolution as goddess, as Raza puts it, evoking a common trope) with its supercharged elan vital, functions as a sign of the professionals’ once ardent idealism. In recovering her, the middle-aged adventurers recover their youth, through a metaphor that equates eros with subversion and thanatos with the cultural status quo. This status quo is aptly embodied by the avuncular Ralph Bellamy, who as the soulless corporate nationalist Grant, resembles a de-whiskered Uncle Sam.

The real theme of The Professionals states itself in an exchange between Dolworth and Ehrengard:

Ehrengard: “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?”
Dolworth: “Maybe there’s only one revolution, since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys. Question is, who are the good guys?”

This acknowledgment of moral ambiguity not only expresses the dilemma which the professionals must later face when they discover that Raza is the good guy and Grant the bad, but exemplifies Slotkin’s “looking glass” effect which Mexico as a mythic space engenders. To cross the border is to risk undermining one’s own values; it is to invite transformation on a radical scale. Of course, reading the subtext of The Professionals, we may surmise that this is precisely what the heroes unconsciously desire. For if the culture of Mexico – with its erotic playfulness, its boisterous communality and its thriving primitivism – represents the wellsprings of innocence, then the professionals, weighed down by the moral fatigue of bitter experience, long to be rejuvenated by those primal energies.

During the attack on Raza’s compound (a site, in the spirit of the 60s, that’s made to seem both squalid and joyous), the film deploys a number of racist images to suggest the innate superiority of the American aggressors. The professionals’ use of clocks to coordinate their assault is the primary image, imputing to them a degree of abstract thinking beyond the grasp of the childlike Mexicans, who carouse till all hours, seemingly oblivious to the passage of time. Another is the conventional Western trope of the friendly Mexican who initially aids the Americans, then betrays them as they make their escape. Once the escape is made good, the film reverts to a more sympathetic portrayal of Raza and his pursuing band.

But the image of the border dramatically shifts. Passing through it southwards, it was porous, welcoming. During the return journey, it takes on the attributes of something hostile and virtually unobtainable. “None of you will reach the border!” declares a truculent Maria. From its benign mode of promised rejuvesence, the border acquires the stature of a metaphysical divide between life and death. It begins to exact a price for what had appeared to be a sentimental journey to the professionals’ lost youth.

The climax of the film – the showdown between Raza and Dolworth, who is fighting a rearguard action as the others move to safety – occurs on the very edge of the border, in an anomalous zone that erases fealty. Differences between friend and foe are flattened out so that the questions of identity and personal loyalty become paramount. The border shifts again to become the line which either separates, or joins, love and duty. Dolworth experiences an epiphany, or as he puts it later to Rico: “I found out what makes a woman [i.e., an ideal] worth a hundred thousand bucks.” It is the same conclusion the doubting Rico had been moving toward himself.

For the professionals, whose technical skills had functioned as a denatured form of honor (here to be considered as a synonym for the integrity of identity), true honor becomes obtainable once more by a return to the ideals they had forsaken. Their passage through Mexico, with its concomitant stages of separation, regression, and regeneration through violence, permits them to attain a rebirth that is really a consummation of their original mythic values. Moreover, by rejecting American culture, which is perceived as corrupt and dishonest, for Mexican culture, they reassert their own identity by a direct reclamation of the past, which for them, in L. P. Hartley’s famous phrase, is literally “a foreign country.”

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Way Out West Part 2—Vera Cruz or, The Past Regained

In Vera Cruz, Mexico appears as a land of opportunity for mercenaries and professional soldiers displaced by the Civil War. Ex-Confederate Colonel Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) travels south of the border to sell his services to Napoleon III’s effete puppet dictator, the Habsburg Emperor Maximillian, who is desperately trying to suppress the rebellion of the Juaristas. Trane hopes to earn enough money to return to Louisiana and rebuild his ruined plantation, rejuvenating the lives of “the folks,” as he puts it, who are counting on him.




To offset the strong implications of paternalism associated with this endeavor, the film presents Trane as a good man who just happened to be on the wrong side of the fight. Contrasted to the noble Trane is Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin, an amoral gunslinger who initially tries to dupe Trane, but comes to respect him for his martial prowess and eventually forms an alliance with him.

Together, the two gringo adventurers turn down a plea to aid the beleaguered Juaristas, selling their guns for Maximillian’s gold. However, Trane gradually comes to sympathize with the Juaristas and their struggle for freedom, which the film depicts an analogue to the Confederate secession. He betrays Maximillian in order to secure a shipment of gold for the rebels, killing Erin to do so. Through this denial of mere self-gratification, Trane affirms the idealism that the Civil War had shattered, though the film’s ambiguous ending leaves open the question of his return to Louisiana.

Vera Cruz is a film in which the metaphor of Mexico operates on a number of levels. The overall tone is grimly cynical about human motives, yet Mexico still functions as a place where rebirth is made possible because of a political state of confusion that verges on the inchoate. In this climate, where the woman Cooper eventually ends up with is presented, successively, as exotic seductress, untrustworthy thief, and finally, dedicated revolutionary, nothing is as it seems, and identity itself becomes fluid, questionable. These are the very conditions that make Ben Trane’s redemption possible. But to undergo this redemption, he must first separate himself from his own cultural matrix, making, as it were, an archetypal journey to the underworld.

Trane never quite regresses, though. He does not take on the attributes of savagery usually associated with regeneration through violence. The casting of Gary Cooper in this role is largely responsible for this, as Cooper’s iconic status as the American Everyman was not flexible enough to allow him to play against the grain. Instead, it is Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin, with his almost prankish sense of eroticism and larceny, who enacts the regression. While presented fait accompli, Erin’s savagery may be understood as the id complementing Trane’s ego, the primitive energies necessary to enable Trane’s idealism. What Trane represses, Erin expresses: the two men form a psychological symbiote, in which the ego agrees to a partnership with its temporarily unrestrained lower self in order to accomplish a goal. By himself, Trane can’t steal the gold. Once the French troops guarding it have been killed, with the help of Erin and his gang, the partnership must end. The savagery necessary to attain the gold then becomes sublimated in the act of assisting the Juaristas, who never appear except en masse, representing the needs of the collective, which must take precedence over the desires of the individual.

Vera Cruz posits a Mexico populated by primitive, yet noble, peasants, and lorded over by European decadence in the person of the ineffectual Maximillian. Against this is set the implacable pragmatism of a dispossessed American, Ben Trane, seeking to re-enfranchise himself in the cultural status quo through calculated acts of deceit and violence. For Trane, as for the viewer, the idealism of the rebels whom he aids evokes a sense of nostalgia which looks back to the “lost cause” of the Confederacy – Trane’s “site of memory” – thereby allowing the present to redress the anxiety created by that loss. This anxiety is further assuaged by the signs that invoke “the otherness” of Mexico: its exotic women, its Aztec ruins, its festive music. In this equation, Mexico becomes the land of the psyche’s provenance, a kind of rough and tumble Eden where the re-invention of the self is always possible.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Way Out West Part 1-Border Crossings

As the defining marker of ideas about national space, the American West has unfolded in the cultural imaginary as both dawn and nocturne, embarkation point and final destination. The West is less place than it is the space between places, functioning as a free-floating zone of representational potentiality, a vast borderland where the anxiety of becoming is inextricably enmeshed with the deeper anxiety that is the threat of historical oblivion. This is one reason why the greatest of Western films are so frequently elegiac in tone. The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Shane, to name only the most prominent examples, attest to a way of life on the verge of vanishing, that crucial moment in which violence is recoded, deliberately revised and effectively subsumed under the name of the law.


To take place, to inhabit space, is also to make history and the making of history means the drawing of borders, the delimiting of space in order to map the coordinates of belonging. As constructed over several generations by Western filmmakers, the cinematic image of Mexico is a crucial part of this process: it plays host to the Other necessary for constructing an American expansionist identity. As such, it invariably conjures up a region of exotic cruelty and licentious abandon, a land where outlaws flee to escape justice and where the innocent are often taken hostage by the cunning. Historically, of course, Mexico as a nation has been dealt with by the United States with cynical opportunism. Sometimes enemy, sometimes ally, the U.S. has treated its southern neighbor with varying degrees of exploitation and paternalism. With the Mexican War of 1846-48, in which California, Arizona, and New Mexico were seized by the U.S. (and the independence of Texas reaffirmed), a precedent for aggression was established. This colonial attitude was eventually reflected in a number of Western movies.

Prominent among them are Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), each of which frames Mexico as both a pastoral haven and a site of permanent exile. The Mexican/American border functions in them as a trope for psychological and spiritual rebirth, one that arose in response to the anxieties created by the closing of the frontier and the continuing cultural pressure to articulate a new site for redemption long after that closing. That all three are products of the Cold War, with the latter two made in the 1960s, after John F. Kennedy’s famous “New Frontier” speech, only underscores the extent to which the anxieties over “the frontier” are really the anxieties of empire. These films explore the crisis masculinity undergoes when its traditional field of cultural production is longer available. Ultimately, the questions raised by the closure of the frontier hinge on the problems of reconciling the excessive and restless character of desire with the need to set limits, to honor memory, and to build and maintain community.

In the cinematic grammar of the Western, Mexico provides one answer to this question. It not only figures as a refuge or place of exile for those living outside the hegemonic discourse, but it is the metaphorical membrane through which the hero of the Western seeks to work out his personal redemption, or in Richard Slotkin’s phrase, his “regeneration through violence.” This regeneration, writes Slotkin, is “the structuring metaphor for the American experience,” and is achieved through the hero’s separation from civilized society, his regression to a more primitive state, and finally, his redemption by the ideologically-sanctioned use of violence as a means of attaining synthesis.

If the Western prior to and immediately after World War II is concerned with staging narratives of ideological stability (the prime examples being John Ford’s cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), the more subversive Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s focus on the gaps in that narrative, whether they deal with more realistic depictions of violence, as in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, or in Ford’s own powerfully revisionary The Searchers. Westerns such as these, as well as the ones I will consider below in detail, conduct probing post-mortems on the closing of the frontier. The border, which hitherto had been presented as an uncomplicated pushing-outwards, returns in these films with all the vengeance of the repressed to haunt the dreams of the colonizers.


In the Western, the border functions as a zone of transition, populated by danger and uncertainty, a region which invites adventurism and exploitation, and not only by individuals living on the margins of the law, but by those forces which nominally support the status quo. Orson Welles’ late noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil, for instance, exploits this quality to brilliant effect, though it’s less sanguine about the possibilities for regeneration, detailing instead how the price of living at the border subjects the law to moral corrosion.

The meaning of the border depends largely on its context: it can be either a barrier or a gateway. This tension illustrates how borders police the terms of exclusion by which a culture insures itself as civilized. Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted observation that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” succinctly sums up the vexed relationship between the binary structures which comprise the foundation of cultural identity. Borders in the Western make neat dividers, then, of such categories as civilized/primitive; rational/instinctual; noble/savage, and so forth. To go “south of the border” means to operate outside of the paradigmatic culture’s jurisdiction, venturing into a territory rife with ambiguity and dangerous possibility.

Mexico, then, functions symbolically as “the underneath,” an alterior region where the forbidden is permitted, a place in which the terms of discourse become inverted, and the possibilities for redemption by those whom the law has dispossessed are made tantalizingly available. In this sense, Mexico takes over the role once played by the western frontier, which was held by Frederick Jackson Turner to have “closed” in 1890. In The Professionals and The Wild Bunch, both set in the early years of this century, that frontier has already closed, while in Vera Cruz, which is set in the late 1860’s, the displacement and anxiety produced in the aftermath of the Civil War conflate excursions into Mexico with westward expansion and exploitation.

To transit the border is to shed one set of values and take up another. In Slotkin’s analogy, it is “to pass through the looking glass.” This passage allows the hero of the Western access to qualities, such as deception and savagery, which are excluded from the discourse of his own culture. He enters a mythic region, where the repressed energies of the psyche are made available to him once more, energies he presses into the service of his own regeneration. In both Vera Cruz and The Professionals, these energies are ultimately employed to affirm the values of the hero’s cultural matrix. In The Wild Bunch, they enact less stable results, though they unfold along structurally similar lines.

The border acts as a marker for locating memory. It situates both what is lost to civilization as well as antecedent to it. In the case of Mexico, the physical boundary counts for less than the temporal divide it represents. Crossing south of the border is a trope for recovering the availability of more primal modes of behavior that have been repressed, abandoned, or forgotten in the drive to achieve civilization. More than that, though, the Mexican border registers what has been erased from memory itself and subsumed into history-at-large. The border in the Western is not only both a bridge and a barrier between two different forms of cultural discourse, but a troubled conduit connecting and implicating two contesting structures of recollection and representation. In Pierre Nora’s phrase, it shifts from milieux de mémoire to lieux de mémoire, that is, from a “real environment of memory” to “sites of memory.” A site of memory, according to Nora, is “any significant object or place which by dint of custom, labor, or the passage of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.”

These sites are configured at the juncture where personal, local memory is overwritten by larger, ideological concerns with preserving culturally sanctioned versions of events. They can be commemorative objects, rituals, or places, like museums or archives, where the anxiety created by the collective loss of memory is re-negotiated in such a way that the idea of continuity, rather than actual continuity, is maintained. In the case of the Western, the porous character of the Mexican border acts to negotiate the anxiety felt by the closing of the frontier. In each of the three films considered here, the border represents varying degrees of license, salvation, and nemesis.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Poetry Chronicles-Prospect of Release

From the dog days to the doldrums. In my last post I promised a trio of offerings on some classic Western films. Upon further review, I'm not really sure they're ready for sub-prime time. Besides which in the interim I fell quite ill with a vile sore throat. I'm almost all better now, which is good, since Julie Carr and her husband, Tim, are about to visit us and we shall go climb into a cool pond nearby.

Illness, as Woolf notes, is altered consciousness. A magnification of the microscopic. A weird humming along the fractal ley lines of the wounded body. But that was before antibiotics, ibuprofen, and TV, and in particular before the advent of Apple TV and streaming. Streaming is a glorious, obscene thing. Why obscene? Because it makes good on the promise of late capital to deliver us to our toxic desires. So I have immersed myself in unspeakable pleasures. Namely, superhero cartoons. This requires a deep blog post which right now I don't have the cognitive juice for. Suffice it to say that the two prime forces which shaped my early imagination were the Catholic Church and Marvel Comics. I'll leave it at that for now.

Below is my 1999 review of Tom Mandel's extraordinary Prospect of Release, which first appeared in Christopher Reiner's WITZ. I cherish this book, all the more so now that my own parents are gone.

PROSPECT OF RELEASE


The problem of transmission is fundamental to Judaism, indeed to the idea of culture itself. The anxieties of establishing continuity go to the very heart of what we mean by memory. How may the past be guaranteed to the future? How is culture carried over and mediated from one generation to the next? How is identity formed and re-formed in its endless conversations with the dead? And how do the dead speak to us? Charles Reznikoff opens his great poem, “By The Well of Living and Seeing” with these lines:

My grandfather died long before I was born,
died among strangers; and all the verse he wrote
was lost --
except for what still speaks through me
as mine.

Here, transmission is envisioned as something enacted with a degree of autonomy, not necessarily to be read as genetic, but rather, perhaps, as a set of codes perpetuated in and by language itself.

Tom Mandel’s haunting Prospect of Release undertakes the task of recovering the lost primary mode of transmission -- the death of a parent. In this intricate series of 50 sonnets written in elegy for his stepfather, Mandel articulates the iterations of sorrow with all the rue and gravity of rabbinical injunction. Austerity becomes the principle not of denudation but replenishment. To start at Aleph, the zero, the nadir -- the place of irremediable loss -- is simultaneously to engage the plenitude of language as response to the dead, to make from the bare ruined choir of an unrequited antiphonal longing the forms of solace, that are also the forms of inheritance, of transmission.

For Mandel, as for Jabes, to confront death means to confront the very nature of language itself. How do we mourn the loss of the Other, these poems ask, while knowing that the words we use to connect also betray us with every breath? The form of all our knowing is language -- "the King's highway" -- as Mandel calls it. How we travel on this road, and what congress it maintains between its own public discourse and our private soliloquies, is just one of the many themes this book so brilliantly engages, not so much through elegy as by the quest for -- and the questioning of -- elegy.

Long associated with Language Poetry, Mandel in his previous book, Letters of the Law, began an investigation of the relationship between language, consciousness and codification which drew deeply on the tradition of Jewish law and mysticism that has always made those concerns its own. Prospect of Release in many ways continues that investigation, but on a much more intimately modulated and poignant scale. The marvel of the book is that the poignancy is achieved through a stripped down diction that plays alertly and harmonically on key ideas and phrases, and by a subdued, formal rhythm perfectly consonant with the starkness of the poet’s grief, his sense of loss.

Loss here remains loss -- what cannot be replaced -- and yet: “Don’t lance his healed wounds,” the poet enjoins, following the steps of the ancient Judaic prescription for mourning, its stern psychology. Loss is also what enables transmission from one person to another to occur; it creates a “reverence modeled on absence.” The form of language -- “our rigorous oral tradition” -- encodes the way of compassionate living. “Not stasis, neither gnosis is your goal.” And even though, as the poet laments, “Grief’s code of desire cannot be read,” it is nevertheless through language that he is permitted entry to the ongoing engagement and renewal of the world, a process not to be confused with history, or even nature, both “idols formed from false propositions.” “Of the ten things made at twilight/the greatest was ‘speech-act.’” Therefore, “vowels, bring on morning. Consonants, cause the sun to set.” Through utterance, we embody a world.

In the Sefer Ta’amei ha-Mitsvoth, according to Gershom Scholem, souls cluster in communal groups and may return to aid the living during times of crisis. “For the dead of each and every family ... are like the roots of a tree, and its branches are the living, for the living exist by virtue of the merits of the dead.” Mandel’s poems seem to draw nourishment from this idea: “Like the living the dead are many,/connected in all traces to the common social order.” This affirmation of communality takes its strength from Judaic tradition, but also recalls Joyce’s “the cords of all link back: strandentwining cable of all flesh.” To link to the dead, for Mandel, is both the expression of grief and the nominalization of a self in opposition to an absence:

I speak to establish my
isolation from you, the object of
my address, whose silence unattainable

listens but cannot respond. Only tears
interrupt such words; tears are
a trope for the presence of the dead.

The motions of grief are one and the same with the motions of remembering. The conjuration of the dead, that is so necessary for establishing the sense of communal continuity, is performed not by some necromantic apostasy, but through the sanctifying figurations of the poem. That which is absent is again made present, if only at a distance, if only at that remove inaugurated and solemnized by the gestures of invocation. Seen this way, it is the living who endure an exile from the dead, one that is redeemed by the tropes of memory. Above all, this exile is redeemed by the highest of speech-acts, the poem.

In his essay on Judaism, “The Indestructible,” Maurice Blanchot writes that Judaism exists as a means to affirm the nomadic quality of being human: “through exile ... and exodus ... the experience of strangeness may affirm itself ... as an irreducible relation ... so that ... we might learn to speak.” The project of living, which is also the project of life’s relation to death, might be described in just the same way. By the death of He-Who-Is-Loved, the poet is compelled to express the exactness of that relation between the dead and the living, the fulcrum and the hinge from which depends the all-that-is-sayable:

Interrupting each other thus, we make
language whole, grounding in speech
both isolation and resolution. We give
exemplary articulation to life and death.


Forming one meta-sonnet, these poems sustain their meditation on death and the possibilities of language through a structure both hermetic and open, enacting a syntax of repetition which continually questions and re-affirms language’s power to transmit “our rigorous oral tradition.” Unlike traditional elegies, these poems don’t presume to circumscribe grief by leveraging memory into the recreation -- the buyout -- of the vanished Other through an accumulation of mundane detail. Rather, they subject the appeal to memory, and its assumptions, to what might be called a poetics of absence. By signifying absence -- the total evacuation of the self -- presence may actually stand out beyond itself, revealed in the aura of its unsignifying numinosum. Blanchot, again, from The Space of Literature:
the lack is the being that lies deep in the absence of being ... the lack is what still remains of being when there is nothing ... when everything has disappeared, there is still something: when everything lacks, lack makes the essence of being appear, and the essence of being is to be there still where it lacks, to be inasmuch as it is hidden (252-53).

Dwelling at the margins of the sayable, Prospect of Release rescues the relation with the Other from the totalizing gesture of language. This steady refusal to collapse difference, not to annul the anxiety it stands in through appeals to conventional sentiment, gives these elegies a uniquely ethical distinction. Mandel’s concerns are not unlike those of Emmanuel Levinas, who writes of the Other in his Totality and Infinity that: “The relation with the other does not nullify separation ... does not establish a totality, integrating me and the Other ... Rather ... the relation of me and the Other commences in the inequality of the terms.”

You are my second, one says to the other,
whom repetition changes and explains,
bearer of identity, yet other --
my stand-in and myself.


Identity is both the measure of the gap between selves and what passes over that gap via transmission, the utterance and re-utterance of words, instructions, even those tears that are “a trope for the dead.” On the King’s Highway, “repetition transforms our route.” Or as Mandel writes in another sonnet: “an ultimate letter/chants the text it changes ...” In this sense, all writing is an enacting of a colloquy with the dead, with what has already passed, figuring through the ancient and various tropes of emptiness and absence a presence, it may be, that is beyond presence.

Do not speak of these
words but repeat them, accompany me,
understand the strength of transmission,

the authority of the lonely in the meaning
of words


In the meaning of words, the authority of the lonely is that which insists on itself, which makes of its isolation a bride to a meaning that the dead once occupied, and once invested with their living. But even to say so is already to have moved on, to have passed, and in passing reject both history and nature, those “idols formed from false propositions.” Instead: “the answer is/to be what’s named, the category/of person ...” By the authority of the naming, the task of the living becomes the transmission of a new code, a re-naming and a re-drawing of the circle which embraces both the living and the dead. (“Es war ein Kreis,” Mandel quotes Celan in the book’s epigraph - “it was a circle” -- and indeed, the entire sequence of sonnets moves in a circularity whose action continually re-inscribes the relations between self and other, performing a shuttle between the question and the affirmation, the call and the response).

These profoundly moving poems are a speaking for the dead in which the dead continue to record their fevers: what they burned for when alive, and what still burns the living. But the dead are also the metaphor through which we try to speak the presentness of our living: the instantiating moment that both eludes and propels us -- the sense of our own otherness, in opposition to the non-being of the dead, as it comes to us through the medium of their unending transmissions. Prospect of Release not only performs a reinvigorated Kaddish, a new inscription and recuperation of the Book of Departure, it also recovers for us what might be called a Bardo for the living, a set of instructions from which we may learn how to endure and reconfigure the absent presence of the dead. “The story that prepared us,” the text of the father, “has died.” Yet the process of re-inscription is fructifying, as Mandel makes clear in his beautiful translation of Isaiah:

Like dew, rain and snow descending
to fructify earth, my word falls from my mouth
to do my will and does not return
unfulfilled but completes the task of my intentions.


To become an interlocutor with the dead, of the dead, for the dead, as Tom Mandel has done in these poems with such an extraordinary combination of tenderness and acuity, is still and always to assay mortal things -- to go up against the place where, as Derrida says, “limits tremble,” and the tongue breaks off. The elegy becomes nothing less than an effort to recover first things by naming last things. Negation, the erasure of self and of form, is transformed. The poem enacts the supreme moment of chiasmus, of the intersection between convergence and divergence, between embodying presence and self-empyting absence. Out of absence and silence, it re-constitutes a new form and continuity, here where we always are, at the horizon of speech.