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)

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Arcadia Project

The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral

This extraordinary, pioneering anthology, conceived and beautifully edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep, is now out. Full of groundbreaking work, it re-frames what used to be called "nature poetry" to meet the radical challenges posed by collapsing ecosystems on the one hand, and the immersive environments of cyberspace on the other.

This is the first collection of its kind to openly address the mutual interpenetration of nature and technology. As such, it subverts or even demolishes many of the pieties attending the idea of nature as a pristine category, immaculate but for our species. As my old professor Tim Morton puts it, we need to think of ecology in a more vibrant and expansive way, without the crippling halo that enwreathes "nature," which has never been and cannot be, natural.

As Corey puts it so eloquently in his introduction, "this volume is hardly intended as a call to conscience ... [it] is a call to imagination -- not the imagination of dire failures, but to the interruptions of poetry ... these interruptions are also connections, recalling readers to life as it is lived ... attuned to the intimations of the mortality of everything."

"Like any simulation, pastoral contains with it a kernel of critical negativity that, when properly activated, promises to put us in touch with the reality, or realities, of our contested world. To write postmodern pastoral is to write from consciousness of this ultimate yet elusive reality, to be a digital native with dirt between one's toes."

My own humble contribution consists of three poems, written at a time when I was studying with Morton at Colorado, in a course called "Green Romanticism." Here is the first of them.

The Dream Of Open Space

Sun. Stone.
The long heave of bare sky.
Branches.
Drop down.

For the cult of the hunter is based on a Darwinian model of belonging to nature: outfits & trophies. The bourgeois economy.

Rock over rock.
Tree crack lung.
Whole air, whole range.
Of luminous distance shrugged.

Between the vibrant life of the other and insatiable appetite.
To do the fatal thing with honor.

The fever of wood alive to the touch.
Where breath is the glory of a farness
come closest.
Sweep of fissure.
Ache of ark
to abide in only its falling.

& swept clear down to water.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Hank Lazer's "N 18 (Complete)"


Hank Lazer’s N 18(Complete) is an impossible book of poems. Written in serpentine longhand, they spiral across the page in calligrammes that challenge legibility. The difficulties and rewards in reading them is central to the question of their form, making that form the very subject of the poems and how the re-spell the possibilities contained in reading, for making meaning as we go, re-making it as we go over. At the same time, their playful inventiveness is inviting, creating an intimacy impossible to obtain otherwise. Over and beyond that, however, these poems continue the explorations begun in the exquisite The New Spirit.

In his essay “Thinking / Singing and The Metaphysics of Sound,” Lazer describes the processes behind the composition of The New Spirit as an attending to not only how we hear music, but how “thinking in musicality” might take place within the poem. N 18 translates this idea into another register – the proprioceptive circuit that is writing by hand, the establishing of hand-to-mind circuit that obeys its own laws of form and formation. In this sense, Lazer is following Duncan, when he writes to Charles Olson that the hand is also a form of hearing, an organ of perception and knowing no less than the ear.

“I have observed in myself a curious double note in hearing. There is a previous ‘hearing’ out of which the lines (or from which – as in sketching an object) are composed, written on the page. Then the central ‘hearing’ is in the hand. The act of writing seems to hold back, rein (Plato’s image of the horseman) – listen (?). But the important thing is that ‘hearing’ only comes as the eys relay the words seen from the designing hand – ”

[N.B. This letter by Duncan is from the Olson archive at U Conn, in Storrs, dated March 1954].

N 18 in some ways is an exploration of this tantalizing description of a reciprocal cognitive feedback loop. More than that, though, it explores the poet’s response to his slow and careful reading of Heidegger and Levinas over a period of several years, a time in which he also found his way more deeply and surely into what he calls “shapewriting.”

“The word G-d is an overwhelming semantic event
that addresses the subversion worked by illeity.
The glory of the Infinite shuts itself up in a word and becomes a being.”

Held lightly

“But it already undoes its dwelling
and unsays itself without vanishing into nothingness” <151>

This is a wholly inadequate approximation of one of the simpler poem’s as it actually appears. Imagine the Levinas quotes as the twin curves of a parenthesis running sideways along the lengths of the page’s margins. It’s that “held lightly,” floating on the horizontal axi between the quotes, that arrests the attention – breaking up the quote, questioning it, but also amplifying it.

Occasionally there are poems that are more or less straightforward, like this one, with its echoes of John Taggart:

turned
back again
turned back toward
away say
then turned around
turned
back being
a way to be
turned
toward

It’s impossible to reproduce the layout and typography of N 18’s pages. Suffice it to say they inscribe multiple figures – the labyrinth, the spiral, the wave, and others so complex and delightful that there are no terms for them, really. Each page is a portal of discovery and wonder. With Levinas and Heidegger as springboards, shapewriting enacts Lazer’s delicate, nuanced articulation of a post-metaphysical theology and the rich potentialities it carries for an innovative poetics that is polyvocal and decentered, but equally welcoming and affirmative.

Eric Hoffman's "The American Eye"

Robert Murphy's Dos Madres Press has been bringing out some amazing books over the past few years, among them several titles by Michael Heller and Norman Finkelstein, Don Wellman's A North Atlantic Wall, and Peter O'Leary's stunning A Mystical Theology of the Limbic Fissure. One of their most recent is Eric Hoffman's The American Eye.

Hoffman, whose forthcoming biography of George Oppen promises to be a major event (and something many doubted could even be done), has situated these angular poems along the rough grain of American transcendentalism and pragmatism. They play beautifully with the language of Emerson and William James, torquing their pithy aphorisms into something provocative and strange. The second half of the book draws from Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. (When I mentioned this to Menand, his response was “interesting”).

But these poems are sharp-eyed and agile and teeming with surprise. In “The Vast Practical Engine,” Hoffman’s language takes on uncanny overtones of George Oppen and William Bronk, delineating a continuity between these latter-day poets of epistemology, their 19th century predecessors, and his own concerns for the poem’s powers of reticulated consciousness, fueled by the precision of the imagination.

the world is certain
yet we cannot know
for certain its certainty
is all there is
to be known

things happen
and Truth is a thing

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Cool of the Archive: On Gustaf Sobin


Reading in an archive is exhausting business. Like viewing paintings at a museum, saturation fatigue, as my friend Nancy Kuhl calls it, can set in quickly. It’s not just the difficulty of deciphering an author’s longhand script, in some cases, but the immersion in their life, their day-to-day concerns, along with the unavoidable sense of feeling like an eavesdropper. Beyond that, there is the larger experience of cognitive confusion that occurs when poring over reams of completely unedited material: so many envelopes stuffed with letters with no signposts for what to read first, or what might prove illuminating and what is merely a dead-end.

I don’t consider myself an archive scholar. Mostly, I just read poems in books that someone has edited, then try to think of some things to say about them. My previous trips to read poet’s papers – to Durham, Northumbria, where Bunting’s papers are kept, and to Storrs, CT, to read Duncan’s letters to Olson – were stimulating, but they never opened up new avenues for the kind of analytical writing I do. At best, they offered the possibility of an alternate life where I would reinvent myself as the editor of obscure poets’ correspondence. Which could be enormously useful to say, about seven people, but probably even more thankless than what I’m doing now.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, thanks to the gracious hospitality of Richard Deming and Nancy Kuhl, who put me up for the night, I spent a total of about seven hours at Yale’s Beinecke Library, an elegant cube of a building, reading through three out of ten overall boxes of Gustaf Sobin’s correspondence (the entire archive of his papers comes to 48 boxes). I had no firm notion of what I was looking for other than the possibility of locating some connections between Sobin and some other poets I’m writing about, chiefly Michael Palmer and John Taggart.

I was disappointed with respect to the latter, who only wrote to Sobin once (about rights for some translations of Rene Char), but the Palmer letters were quite marvelous, though I have no idea what, if anything, to do with what I gleaned. There was a real sense of connection, through the work and the care and demands of the work, that linked these two (though Sobin’s letters to Palmer are not included). It was a privilege to read them and out respect for Palmer I won’t quote from them here except to note one poignant remark made after his 41st birthday: “Some things at least I can appreciate more. I won’t list them, lest they disappear.” (That single word, “list,” in Palmer’s spidery hand, gave me some long minutes of puzzling out).

There are also some gems from one of Sobin's literary executors, Andrew Joron, who writes, in 1999: "isn't the system of language itself finally to be understood as an Ur-terrestrial toponym?"

The most amusing exchange, from 1956, occurs between Sobin, still a student at Brown, and Ezra Pound, still incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s. Sobin writes to the older poet as a “very deep admirer” and asks if he can visit and, if possible, bring him some him of his poems. Pound’s typewritten reply, on a postcard, is terse:

“you will have to give proof of preparation,/& a list of what you object to//before I can spend time on you/let alone kindergarten lesson// Yrs. E.P.//also some personal reference would be helpful//why should ANY man take time away from informative reading?”

Sobin’s cheeky response is priceless. He begins by stating that he has no list of objections. Instead, he submits a list of things he loves. These include “my fiancé, swimming at Paraggi, Canto 90, and Campari bitter and ripe olives.” There’s no indication if the trip to D.C. was ever taken. I suspect somehow that it was not. But if it was?

In the 1980s, Sobin, already in dialogue with his publisher James Laughlin at New Directions, offered to help Laughlin with preparations for a film about Pound, much of which was to be shot on location in Provence. The exchange between the two is animated, with Sobin supplying a special map that links Pound’s sacred sites to the Michelin map for Provence. He also prepared, after combing through The Cantos, an extensive list and breakdown of the poem’s many allusions to troubadour culture. It runs to several pages, single-spaced. I’ve requested a PDF of this with a view toward augmenting my argument, made in a recent talk given at Orono, about Sobin’s discrete silence regarding Pound’s influence on his work.

There’s no mention of the film’s final fate. At several points, Laughlin complains about the work schedule set by the director, Lawrence Pitkethly, both on the set and in post-production. I suspect these aren’t really in earnest. Either that, or Laughlin simply had no idea about the kind of hours that go into production, which can easily run to 15 per day. In 1982, a screening of some 13 hours of unedited footage takes place at Yale in the hopes of securing the film’s purchase by the archives. But I have yet to verify if the film is at the Beinecke, or if still exists in some form, or if it was even completed or shown anywhere. (Pitkethly also directed several episodes of the PBS/Vendler series, “Voices and Visions,” including the one on Pound).

N.B. A quick Google search indicates that a 90 minute film, "Ezra Pound: American Odyssey," did in fact appear in 1988. The NY Times called it a "standard biographical documentary." Presumably it is more or less the same as the Pound episode in "Voices & Visions." So much for the mystery -- and my research skills.

The Laughlin correspondence is extensive and full of mutual warmth and regard. Sobin’s file contains the New Yorker profile of Laughlin, entitled simply “Jaz.” Their friendship survived New Directions’ draconian decision to drop Sobin from their list (apparently his books weren’t making the grade: sales of 1000 over two years). That was a tough letter to read and must have been even tougher to write, much less receive. Yet even as Laughlin’s health failed him (he'd suffered a stroke) and his eyes started to go, he remained the ever supportive friend and erstwhile editor. The last letter from him is dated January 28, 1997. He died later that year, in November; Sobin included a print out of the NY Times online obituary. The feeling of loss, of the end of a conversation, is palpable.

As Sobin wrote to Laughlin, on May 24, 1993: “Palliative, that’s the word. Isn’t that what poetry – and irises – are all about?”

The most vivid correspondence that I came across – and this is one of those things that can surprise you in archive research – was Eliot Weinberger’s. The force of Weinberger’s personality is electric in his letters – there are seven fat folders full of them – which begin in the 70s and go through the 90s. He comes across as a consummate bon vivant, witty and sharp, with a gift for piercing pronouncement and razor-sharp satirical gibes at the expense of the inflated. And he made me want to read the mysterious Karin Lessing.

Many of Sobin’s responses are collected in this file, often given over to detailed instructions for the proofs of his complicated poems that would appear in Weinberger’s journal, Montemora. As Sobin writes, “the proper placement of a word can be as significant, as crucial, as the word itself.” It’s clear that not only Weinberger’s great care as an editor, but his investment in a certain kind of poetics, was of great importance for Sobin, a real source of nourishment. Montemora supported, he writes, “the breath of the letter, the spark that instructs the shadows.”

Weinberger’s support obviously was instrumental for Sobin. What it gave him was hsi first real moment of recognition. Which, finally, may be all the reward a writer can really hope for. As he put it in a letter of April 28, 1977: “I’ve been living here, Eliot, on a slab of wind, for over ten years, writing, writing, writing. That the words finally carry. That you hear them, is great recompense.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Report from Orono 2012-The Poetry of the 80s


There were many great moments at the just-concluded 2012 Orono Conference on The Poetry of the 80s. I’m being kind of partial here, of course, but I think the panel I organized on Michael Palmer, “Estranging the Logos,” with brilliant papers by Richard Deming, Peter O’Leary and Norman Finkelstein kind of rocked the house. I’m normally pretty unflappable (Editor’s note: actually not true, but it sounds good as a lead-in) so I stayed cool as I saw the room gradually filling up. At least 50 people, I’d say. Even Marjorie Perloff’s presence didn’t ruffle me since I’d rather counted on her coming.

But reader, when I looked up as I started my introduction and seated there, several rows up, right at eye level, I saw Nate Mackey, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe, gazing down at me with a cool, implacable Olympian calm, I confess, my heart quailed. I mean here I was, claiming with a straight face that the 80s were Palmer’s decade. I was too rattled to improvise in front of the poetry gods, so I just stuck to script and plowed on. No one remembers the introductions to these things anyway and the panel was so exciting it really just didn’t matter. By the time we got to the Q&A I was myself again.

I’m not going to set out in detail even a summary of all the talks I heard. That would require a Herculean effort. I’ll just mention some of the quirkier highlights and pleasures.

The glamorous Star Black orchestrating a madcap photo op with about 20 or so of us, including Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, in the University’s student union after lunch.

Aldon Nielsen and I cheering when we watched the cable news feed of the SCOTUS ruling. Throughout the conference Aldon wore two hats. But not at the same time.

Chatting with the charming Donna Hollenberg about some of the juicier bits in her forthcoming biography of Denise Levertov.

Laura Moriarty fondly recalling Michael Palmer’s early mentorship.

Pen Creeley, period.

David Need lying supine on a bench outside Corbett Hall reciting from Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight.

My Freudian slip in the Gustaf Sobin talk where I called Wordsworth’s “Ruined Cottage” “The Ruined College.”

Alan Golding’s Colbertism, in his Armand Schwerner talk: “hoaxiness.”

Charles Bernstein reading his heart-rending translation of Goethe's "Der Erlkonig."

Susan Howe holding up a copy of Lee Hickman’s magazine Temblor, at her plenary reading.

Marjorie Perloff declaring, as a respondent to a panel, that San Francisco as a literary scene was “over.” And Kevin Killian saying, “I could talk your ear off about that.”

Kevin Killian in general, but especially his deeply moving plenary talk about AIDS.

A major critic stating flatly that In The American Tree is just unreadable anymore.

Talking theology and Duncan with Peter O’Leary.

Talking Sobin with Joe Donahue.

Talking trash with Bob Archambeau and Grant Jenkins.

Keith Tuma’s sly sense of wit.

Talking Ed Dorn, Baraka, and Naropa with old Boulder friend Joe Richey on the drive back down to Portland.

Nate Mackey brandishing his cane as he strolled by Norman Finkelstein, Joe Donahue and myself and threatening to whack us with his “ugly stick.” Which conjured up the cover of his From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, with its image of a flute terminating in a hammer head, and which, of course, I took to be a classic instance of gnostic contagion.

That was my Orono conference, in part. And I missed a lot, especially at the after-hours poetry readings.

Huge thanks to Steve Evans, Carla Billiteri, Ben Friedlander and Jennifer Moxley, for making it all happen. Bring on the 90s!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prometheus Bound, Part 2: Body Horror & The Sublime, with Special Reference to Geoff Dyer


So yes, Prometheus is in many ways a huge disappointment. Yet I find it stays with me in potent ways, and not just through the cheap horror thrills. (I call them cheap because they are presented outside any coherent psychological frame; in a word, they are gratuitous. That doesn’t make them any less powerful, especially for someone as squeamish as I am). The disappointment stems, I think, from its really being two movies – the first, a compelling story about the extraterrestrial origins of life on earth and the radical dethroning of human exceptionalism; the second, also an origin story, but really just an excuse for a gory schlock-fest that awkwardly attempts to shoehorn into the first narrative a shallow justification for rebooting the Alien franchise. Basically an exercise in brand promotion, this second storyline makes it clear that the real hero of the film is the alien itself. As it rises from the corpse/incubator of the Engineer in the film’s ending, Scott can’t resist investing it with a Gotterdammerung-like pretentiousness. Hail the conquering beast! Or, as a friend waggishly put it: “I have a mouth inside a mouth inside another mouth…” The implication of this story arc carries an ersatz resonance – humans and the monster carry strands of the same DNA.

(I’ll just note here that my knowledge of the whole series is rather spotty. Scott’s inauguration of the franchise was a slickly crafted, if cynical, film – and yes, it scared the shit out of me when I saw it. The third installment was forgettable and of the fourth I profess total ignorance. The true gem in the series is the second, directed by Cameron. That said, Stephen Mulhall, a British philosopher who writes on Heidegger, has done an excellent job of thinking through the Alien Quartet and the questions it raises in his compact and excellent book, On Film).

Mixed into the murk of Prometheus – its insulting violations of verisimilitude, its shabby internal consistency and logic, its weak characterizations and dialogue (just a collection of attitudes, really), and its cynical exploitation of the audience – are some truly stunning moments of spectacle: images that linger on after the queasy creature fest has faded. Though the film overall is emotionally dissonant, the scenes of wonder that punctuate it go a considerable ways toward saving it from collapsing under the weight of its own morbidity.

But before I go into that angle, a few words about horror.

In her essay, “Reading Like an Alien” (in Posthuman Bodies), my old professor Kelly Hurley smartly dissects the first two films in terms of the rise of so-called “body horror” films in the 80s (a response to AIDS, among other cultural anxieties?). Body horror is all about revulsion – about the polymorphously perverse desecration of the human body and finally, as she writes, about an utter lack of investment in nostalgia for the human as “a discrete and stable category.” This is a kind of Lovecraftian gnostic horror, in which the scale of the universe is not only older and vaster than we can conceive, but more significantly, where the human is dwarfed by biomorphic monstrosities, hybrid organisms whose shapes alter with the environment and whose logic is either that of the hive, or something even further outside mammalian social structures. It’s as though human bodies were designed to be penetrated, suborned and consumed by alien life forms; and indeed, this horror seems like an extension of what we currently know about our own bodies – that they are not truly ours, in the sense of sole proprietorship, but are always already colonized by millions of bacteria. The real horror in body horror comes from the way the body is shredded, not of the body, but the very idea of identity itself.

Interlude—The Dyeresque

So why am I spending so much time writing about this film, trying to puzzle out its irresistible inanities? Partly by way of scratching an itch. Largely by way of putting off the far more difficult labor of revising pressing and important academic work. But beyond that, I fear I’ve been infected with what I’ll call the Geoff Dyer virus. For as I write this I’m also working my way through Zona, his madly charming, exasperating and compulsively readable book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film I’ve finally got round to seeing. Dyer claims, quite rightly I think, that by the time you’re 30 you’ve already seen all the films that will mark themselves as Truly Great for you. This is not an argument about intellectual sophistication. Quite the opposite – Dyer cannily perceives that the master works (not canonically speaking) of our souls are those we receive at our most emotionally porous. (This echoes, for me, a line from Yeats’ Autobiography, which is that by 20 a man will have been fully formed by what he has read). Thus, for Dyer, The Italian Job (original Caine version) and Von Ryan’s Express. Thus, for me, Casablanca and Singin' in the Rain and 2001 and The Big Heat.But also, Five Million Years to Earth and The Valley of Gwangi. The Dyer rule is not hard and fast. I didn't see John Ford's cavalry trilogy till well into my 30s and those films now hold pantheon status for me.

Since Dyer and I are roughly the same age, the mention of Von Ryan's Express gave me a warm glow of reminiscence. I recently revisited it, with great pleasure. The first time I saw it was at drive-in in South Bend, sitting in the back of my parent’s paneled station wagon. I hadn’t seen Bridge on the River Kwai yet so of course couldn’t know that Ryan was a cheap knock-off in the WWII prison escape genre. Yet Ryan affords visceral pleasures that remain beyond the stuffy “genius” of David Lean. I’d take Frankie improbably sprinting around in his sweaty khakis any day over Alec Guinness struggling in his actor’s soul. Termite beats Elephant yet again. But the thing here is – two things, really – a) that Stalker is, as Dyer avers, cinema itself, compared to which the collected works of Ridley Scott are so much chaff; and two, to read Dyer is, like reading Lawrence, another Dyer talisman, to find oneself thinking aloud inside like Dyer. This is perhaps the highest praise for style that can be made. The same phenomenon occurs when reading Woolf, for me. This is not to say that Dyer is on the level of DHL or Woolf. Far from it. Dyer can be vastly annoying, with his always playing down High Art while loving it mode; it's as if his love of Rilke, DHL or Tarkovsky must be mitigated by some common sense midde-class truism. And it's hard to find, save for the exquisite But Beautiful, a single sentence that sings. He's almost melodo-phobic. Maybe that's his secret. But it is to say that what makes a style itself is a certain confounded inimitability that is, perversely, deeply imitable. It gets inside your head and makes you see the world through it.

End of Interlude

But finally now, to return to the way Prometheus stages wonder. Despite its title, it’s really a film about the past. Its gorgeous opening sequence – gorgeous, but problematic, because it immediately raises the question of “Really? this is the best way a superior race could think of to seed a planet with DNA?” – makes this an archaeological detective story, which is another way of saying, it’s a ghost story. And the ghosts do show up. First, in the marvelous hologrammic sequences where we see the Engineers fleeing from something unseen (of course it’s unseen). And then when the final Engineer implacably implausibly arises from his crypt after a 2000-year nap and bemusedly tears the head off David, the android (who is the liveliest character in the whole motley crew, stealing every scene he’s in) the way a child might twist off a doll’s head.

The centerpiece of wonder – which we know from Suvin, Clute, et al. is the trope of tropes in SF – occurs when David presses “Play,” as it were, in the Engineers’ cockpit and the whole space lights up with an orrery. (Orrery is a fantastic word, I will note here, ala Dyer. I first came across it in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, about which I’ve written here before – see above, or below). But as with so much else, perhaps everything, really, in this film, the scene of writing is contaminated from the get-go.

Side-note: the hologram display in the cockpit of the Prometheus is pretty fancy, too, revealing the interior of the pyramid, and eventually, the buried starship. It's both prelude and lesser companion to the Engineers' orrery, a bit of foreshadowing or paralleism. But this raises another one of those annoying questions that drags down the film, the way its script is outpaced by its fx. These Engineers have been around for millions of years, right? And they're still using what, given the scale of time involved, seems like primitive technology. Visually awesome, for sure -- and therefore, necessary for a movie. But why are they still mucking around with their toys at this stage, their squids and bipeds and so forth? Seems like they would have engineered themselves to some new level Quite Beyond Us and left all that in the dust, rather the way elder races in Iain Banks' Culture novels grow weary of matter and go Sublime. Or maybe they're just bored.

For the orrery is not merely a chart that connects the now with the then, the life of humans on Earth with its moment of inception, an overview of Creation itself. It is also a blueprint for corporate management, the scene of wonder as filtered through the map of conquest. (I really ought to see this again, but will wait for the DVD so I can skip the gory parts). The orrery is a kind of speculum – a mirror in which we think we discern our true and original design; almost Wordsworthian, in a way. Except that poor William’s been upstaged or outflanked by HPL.

Wonder in this scene is signaled by several things: by scale and recognition; by circular camera movement; by the abstract becoming tangible (the glowing sphere of the earth hangs like a luminous fruit to be plucked, as it is), and by David the android’s complete rapture with the entire tableau. This kind of visual cueing is effective, but dishonest. As David responds so the audience responds – with a gaze of fixity and a slight smile. Whence this smile? This is perhaps the most sneakily uncanny moment in the whole film since David’s silky responses, we can presume, are in line with our own engineering of him, designed to make humans feel assured, even if the android itself is incapable of real emotion. And indeed, the script plays this angle up quite smartly with its “we made you because we could” line.

But that orrery – it’s not just a map. It’s a representation of a representation – in Dyer-speak, a special effect, i.e. a contrivance of what Scott Bukatman calls "the artificial infinite," about a map about a plot to dethrone human exceptionalism. And while we marvel at it, because it induces a sense of awe mixed with vertigo (there's center, yes, but the camera keeps spinning, keeping us off balance) it also gives us, or should, a deep interstellar shiver. As in, Stephen Hawking's gloomy pronouncements on nasty ETs, AKA the Fermi Paradox (elaborated on in Greg Bear's diptych, Forge of God and Anvil of Stars). Or maybe it comes down to me paraphrasing Dyer quoting Herzog from Grizzly Man: nature is totally indifferent to us.

Does this mean I think Prometheus transcends its flaws? I'll get back to you on that.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prometheus Bound

Ridley Scott’s new SF extravaganza reverses the premise of 1979’s Alien. Instead of the action unfolding on a haunted space ship, it takes place on a haunted planet. There’s not much difference, though. Scott has always been a filmmaker with extraordinary visual gifts, a cold eye for humanity and a flair for theatrics. Unfortunately, he has scarcely an actual idea to his credit. A highbrow vulgarian, his films often produce admiration, but they’re incapable of inspiring love. He’s a visionary without a vision, someone in search of a sentiment, as the quip goes, to match his vocabulary.

Prometheus is a very uneven and finally quite disappointing mix of sublime grandeur and crass, cynical manipulation. Despite the film’s dazzling spectacle and powerful sense of scale (eons and light-years are spanned), its obsessions finally come down to a set of stale horror tropes involving bodily penetration and disgust. I’ve never cared much for this mixture of SF and horror. To me, the latter dilutes and impoverishes the former, reducing its potential for transcendence and strangeness to self-indulgent japeries of the grotesque. SF is primarily about invoking a sense of wonder and functions as a potent expression of secular theology – see my earlier blogs on postmodern space opera and Solaris. If horror is about the betrayal of the body – its decay and failure – SF is about transforming it into an avatar of the technological sublime.

Scott’s chief concern seems to be with trying to out-revulse revulsion by topping the chest-popper scene from Alien. The scene is gripping enough in itself, but nothing, including Noomi Rapace’s dogged efforts otherwise, can ever surpass the rude surprise of that moment. What the gruesome auto-Caesarian does make plain, though, is Scott’s utter contempt for the female body, turning natural reproduction into demonic possession. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Scott’s logic here is of a brutalist Darwinian order – nature, on the interstellar scale, is nothing but a series of fanged and tentacled paroxysms. Yet there’s no real logic to these scenes or to the theological baiting and red herrings the film pretends to offer in good faith. They exist purely to generate huge, bowel-wrenching shocks in the audience. These shocks are symptomatic of the film’s larger failure, which is the absence of a coherent moral point of view.

The film fails on two other levels. One is dramatic; the other conceptual. Dramatically, Rapace’s character is a dull, humorless hump. With her crucifix the sign less of devotion than a daddy complex, she plods through the film with the grim determination of a Zoombot. There are no edges to her character, no wit, nothing to make us root for her, and not the remotest trace of moral complexity or growth. She never once doubts herself. She seems to be a bystander in every scene, passively reacting, rather than initiating action. Even the climax doesn’t place her in serious jeopardy. Instead it stages a grim duke-out between the Giant Engineer and his erstwhile pet, the Land Squid cum vagina dentata (I’m still trying to cleanse that image from my brain).

The conceptual failure is more intriguing. As Norman Finkelstein has noted (on FB), Prometheus is something of a Gnostic creation story. The callous indifference and outright malevolence of the Engineers makes them Archons of bio-tech design. I only wish they’d been more indifferent and less malign, since the latter reduces them to the scale of puny vindictiveness. But the film’s skirting of alien motive doesn’t render their motives more alien, that is, more truly gnostic; it only makes them over into ridiculous figures of cartoonish villainy. The filmmakers propose something colossal, then squander the opportunity it presents them with to imagine alien otherness, the kind of alterity that tests our anthropocentric bias with the limits of the commensurable.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Threshold Songs

At the threshold of this intense, visionary book, stands an epigraph from Beckett’s homage to his father, Company, like a lean solitary dolmen marking the descent to the underworld: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.” To stand at a threshold, to hover in its precincts, on the verge, at the cusp, means to invite a certain kind of transmission; a certain porousness. It is to place oneself in between, belonging neither to one place nor another, but committed to the more difficult site of unease; an unease between self and other, nearness and distance, present and past, the dead and the living, logos and its ghosts. To write at the threshold is to consent to Stevens’ assertion that in the poem “we live in a place that is not our own.”




Part of the reason Peter Gizzi’s remarkable new poems, his most powerful yet, have stirred such unease in the form of back-handed praise by reviewers like Dan Chiasson (who smugly labels Gizzi “a lunch pail mystic”) is that they dare to inhabit a psychic and spiritual terrain where language confronts with stark, uncompromising honesty the threshold of song as it pushes against the enigma of loss, the place where the acknowledgement of language’s finitude is, finally, the horizon of our exile and belonging.

What is so startling about these haunting poems is the ecstatic charge they give to this recognition. The pathos of desolation is harrowing, but also renewing. For if the trauma of loss rends us, out of this gash a strange gnosis may emerge. It’s as if Orpheus, after losing Eurydice, began to speak in her voice. Gizzi is not merely elegizing here; he is rethinking the very basis for lyric, testing it continually against its subjective limits by making the experience of the irretrievable the core of the lyric voice. "Pinocchio’s Gnosis" is a case in point: a tour de force, yes, but calling it that suggests it’s merely a display of ludic virtuosity. Here the poet enters a vertiginous free fall. The catastrophe of loss threatens all signification. Yet the poem also reminds us, as Rilke says of Trakl, that “falling is the pretext for an inexorable ascension.”

"Funny how being dead troubles the word. I am trying to untie this sentence, to untidy the rooms where we live. No words in the soup, no soup in this sky, no more history written onto onionskin, peeling onion skins …with a magical broom, the wind sang sweep, like an oar in air we ascend. We power the instrument and apply a salve, uncover the ghost behind fig. Mistake it for an omen then quiet the cloud, the cloud just there seen through a cataract.”

And in a magnificent riff on Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” speech, the poem asks:

"What is a man but a paper miscellany, a bio furnace blowing coal, a waste treatment plant manufacturing bluster, an open signal full of seawater, a dark stranger turning over the dark next to you."

Threshold Songs attends to this miscellany, the messiness of contingency, with a grave and urgent nuance, a careful listening for where syntax can reach into affect. Reading these poems is like being overtaken by the uncanny feeling that, as Gizzi writes in “The Growing Edge,” “it’s Sunday in deep space.” To claim, as one reviewer does, that they foreclose discovery, is to deeply misread the cognitive work they do, which is undertaken as the pursuit of the limits of elegy and its weak messianic power to intervene.

Lyric is typically understood as the consoling affirmation of voice. These poems drive beyond that. In Adorno’s words, they “sound forth in language until language itself acquires a voice.” Undertaken not as attempts at closure, but a witness to the impossible crux of song’s burden, they sustain the power of the threshold between mourning and melancholy, striving to metabolize traumatic loss without dissolving that loss entirely. To paraphrase Kierkegaard on anxiety: “whoever has learned to live with loss in the right way has learned the ultimate.” To assimilate loss completely would be to falsify its meaning.

Consolation – the thing we go to the poem for – is here, but in a different key: dissonant, refractory, circled uneasily, sometimes nearer, sometimes only felt from a distance. The loss persists, reverberating, expanding to encompass a larger measure of the world and how the self undergoes even its own dissolution. The music derives from the acuteness of this weird, humbling pitch. It penetrates everything without quite destroying it so that it becomes its own form of consolation. As in the opening of “Analemma”:

"That I came back to live
in the region both
my parents died into
that I will die into
if I have nothing else
I have this and
it’s not morbid
to think this way
to see things in time
to understand I’ll be gone
that the future is already
somewhere
I’m in that somewhere
and what of it"

Or the plangent imperative which closes “History is Made at Night” (a nod to Frank Borzage’s exquisite 1937 melodrama):

"A kind of vow like poetry
burning the candle down.
Bring back the haloed reverie.
Music, retake the haughty
night sky. Its storied rays
its creak and croak
its raven’s wing tonality."


The short lines compress anguish into a flat plain voice, the syntax bending the argument with loss into something else, lifting loss against the walls of song where language strains but doesn’t quite break. In poems like this one, and "True Discourse on Power" (“Because a sound a poor man/uttered/reached my ear I fell into song”), the real task Gizzi takes up is how we know and experience our categories for knowing, which are, finally, categories for tabulating and confronting loss. Death challenges epistemology at the most fundamental level. The result is a poetry of relentless, even excruciating, inquiry, tempered by a tenderness for what is broken or hurt or incomplete. A kind of nakedness emerges – a laying open after history – that is complex, rather than simple, and utterly necessary.

Threshold Songs has been misread by reviewers because the contemporary critical vocabulary for understanding a genuinely spiritual poetics is so impoverished. Written under the sign of Beckett, whose complex sense of failure endows the via negativa with a comically forlorn sense of hope, a difficult gnosis of unknowing permeates Gizzi’s defiantly open, questioningly elegiac tone. These poems achieve a lived sense of finitude that is at once anchored in the body and dispersed by spiritual longing, a desolate hunger for intimacy which is ratified by its own search.

“Bewilderment,” Fanny Howe tells us, “is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconciliability.” Or, as Gizzi writes in an earlier poem, “The Outernationale”: “Start from nothing, and be/long to it.” To sing at the threshold is to suffer the shipwreck of that enjambment, then stand in bewilderment at how far a song might go.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ron Slate's "On The Seawall"

Ron Slate's annual spring poetry feature -- 17 poets on 17 poets -- is now up on his excellent site The Great Wall.

My own contribution is on Peter Gizzi's powerful new collection, Threshold Songs. Also included; Elizabeth Robinson on David Mutschlecner and Tyrone Williams on Judith Goldman.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Quote of the Day (and The Low, Dishonest Decade)

From John Lancaster's "Marx at 193," in the new London Review of Books:

"The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat. No democracy has ever been destabilised by terrorism, but if the cashpoints stopped giving out money, it would be an event on a scale that would put the currently constituted democratic states at risk of collapse. And yet governments act as if there is very little they can do about it. They have the legal power to conscript us and send us to war, but they can’t address any fundamentals of the economic order."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Adorno, Shoah, and The New Yorker

Richard Brody is one of my favorite film critics. His squibs in the “Now Playing” section of The New Yorker are masterpieces of poetic sensibility and compression (like the current one on Children of Paradise) and often the best things in any given issue, while his book on Godard, Everything is Cinema, is masterful. So it’s disappointing to see him resort to the usual tiresome cliché about Adorno on art after Auschwitz in his otherwise moving and perceptive review of the life and work of Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah.

As Brody tells it, Lanzmann’s desire to make Shoah a beautiful as well as a morally forceful film – in Lanzmann’s eloquent phrase, “to make the unbearable bearable” – provides “a resounding response to Adorno’s assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For response here, read "refutation."

It’s easy to misread Adorno. Understanding him means reading him alongside his friend Walter Benjamin’s definitive statement of dialectical thinking: “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” By saying that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Adorno was not condemning the power of art. He was saying that the culture that produced the poetry of Goethe and Rilke also produced the language of the Final Solution: culture itself is the problem. It’s impossible to think the two apart from one another, as though civilization was safely walled off from barbarism. Surely Abu Ghraib is the nearest reminder of that.

As a kind of shorthand for a profound resignation about the fate of culture, the phrase “poetry after Auschwitz” needs to be viewed in the wider context of Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment, which as he observes in 1947, had “aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty,” only to culminate as “disaster triumphant.” As Adorno and Max Horkheimer elaborate in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “the human being’s mastery of itself, on which the self is founded, practically always involves the annihilation of the subject in whose service that mastery is maintained … self-preservation destroys the very thing which is to be preserved.”

In other words, events like the Shoah are not aberrations, not psychotic breaks from social reality. Rather, they exemplify the logic of technocratic culture at its most extreme. Adorno’s concern is with not succumbing to the collective amnesia and repressions of the fate of the Jews in post-Auschwitz culture, as described in the brilliant epilogue to Tony Judt’s magisterial Postwar, "From the House of the Dead."

Here’s Adorno’s full quote, more or less, from “Cultural Criticism” (1949):

“The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.”

As Michael Rothberg helpfully points out in Traumatic Realism, the phrase “poetry after Auschwitz” is perhaps rendered with greater clarity (but less urgency) if translated into “poetry after reification.” Reification is the agent of poetry’s impossibility, for, as he explains, “the barbarism or irrationality of ‘poetry after Auschwitz’ is that, against its implicit intentions, it cannot produce knowledge of its own impossible social status … this impossibility is neither technical nor even moral … it results instead from an objective and objectifying social process that tends toward the liquidation of the individual,” or what Adorno elsewhere calls the totally administered world, the society of "radical evil”.

Language’s complicity in the catastrophe of the modern means that poetry itself is vulnerable to reification. Poetry that does not acknowledge its own barbarism, then, its tendency to valorize subjective experience as though it floated free of its larger ideological framework, will do nothing to resist the cultural conditions that make an Auschwitz possible. Making it pretty just don’t cut it anymore.

To write poetry after Auschwitz means rejecting traditional aesthetic values like harmony, consonance, and even beauty. These values aim at reconciling tension and thus, for Adorno, can only corrupt the poem. As he writes in Aesthetic Theory:

“Art is true to the extent to which it is discordant and antagonistic in its language and in its whole essence, provided that it synthesizes those diremptions, thus making them determinate in their irreconcilability. Its paradoxical task is to attest to the lack of concord while at the same time working to abolish discordance.”

All critiques of culture, Adorno insists, must begin by implicating themselves in the wreckage they are sifting. This is why the understanding that poetry after Auschwitz has become barbaric is endangered, he warns, of being confused with a merely punitive or reductionist gesture banning all aesthetic expression. If lyric poetry is also a critique of culture – a point he makes strongly in his 1957 essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” where he writes “that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism” – then it, too, is always already fully a part of the aporia of culture.

This does not mean that subjective suffering has no right to express itself. Even if, as Adorno claims in the famous conclusion to Negative Dialectics, “all culture after Auschwitz, including the urgent critique of it, is garbage,” “perennial suffering still has as much right to expression as the martyr has to cry out.” The aporia of cultural failure does not mean the collapse of culture into total barbarism, neither does it signal the end of dialectics.

Instead, Adorno tells us in Minima Moralia, it compels seeing things from “the standpoint of redemption,” an act that requires the construction of perspectives that “displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear on day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with objects – this alone is the task of thought.” That such a redemptive stance is to be achieved solely through “felt contact with objects” might seem at first glance a strange claim to make. Yet what Adorno is advocating here is a non-idealist move that, while reducible to vulgar materialism, seeks a return to things, not as essences, but as fragments whose integrity is guaranteed by their loss of wholeness. Located through a micrological sifting of the ruins, these fragments possess the ability to form new constellations of meaning.

Lyn Hejinian offers a nuanced reading of Adorno, suggesting that his maxim “has to be taken as true in two ways.” “First, because what happened at Auschwitz … [rendered] all possibilities for meaning … suspended or crushed.” And second, and more importantly, because the event of the disaster enjoins poets “not to speak the same language as Auschwitz … poetry after Auschwitz must indeed by barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities. As a result, the poet must assume a barbarian position, taking a creative, analytic and often oppositional stance, occupying (and being occupied) by foreignness—by the barbarism of strangeness.”

Adorno was never opposed to the power of art to register the Shoah. His essay on Beckett’s Endgame provide ample evidence of that. Indeed, the whole of Aesthetic Theory, his final work, is devoted to working out this intractable problem. But the clearest statement he issued comes near the end of Negative Dialectics:

“A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler on unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Best Poetry Lines Ever, with Special Reference to Edwin Rolfe

As Eileen Simpson recounts in her marvelous book Poets in Their Youth, Berryman and Lowell used to play a game where they challenged each other to name the three best lines in English. Berryman's, as I recall, were from Yeats' "The Wild Swans at Coole."

For a long time mine were from Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale":

"But here there is no light
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous gloom and winding mossy ways."

Later, it was Pound, in the late Cantos:

"Do not move.
Let the wind speak
that is paradise."

I won't say that the two lines below, from Edwin Rolfe's "First Love," have replaced either Keats or Pound for me. But they're certainly worth quoting.

"and always I think of my friend who amid the apparition of bombs
saw on the lyric lake the single perfect swan."

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Department of Petty Gripes or, Greil Marcus

What's happened to Greil Marcus? Yes, I know many of you have been pondering this urgent question.

Marcus has had a long and distinguished career as an astute commentator on contemporary culture. Mystery Train was a groundbreaking book on the roots of American popular music, though its approach clearly owed a great deal to Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel. Much of what he's written on Dylan, especially, has been first-rate, if just barely this side of Bob-dolatry. His co-editing, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America, was inspired. And then of course there's his magnum opus on avant-garde modalities, The Lipstick of History. That book codified the Marcus style: a free-wheeling and exciting series of associations and vivid, if sometimes, problematic transhistorical leaps poised halfway between New Journalism and more sober scholarly analysis. It was refreshing, even galvanizing, writing: culture critique at its most enthusiastically incisive and an enormous pleasure to read. In retrospect, though, it may also have marked the beginning of his style's decay into mannerism.

Before I go on, I should note that re-reading Mystery Train inspired me to place Lorene Niedecker alongside the blues of Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson. The Marcus method at work!

Marcus belongs to a certain generation of writers that heralded an exciting moment in American music journalism. They were part of the larger vanguard, riding the shockwave rippling out from Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, and Thompson. I associate him with writers like Peter Guralnick, Paul Nelson, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Robert Palmer, to name a just a few: firebrands who rewrote the rules. Who said that pop music is culture and is here to stay, Roll over, Teddy Adorno, while we borrow a few lines from Benjamin. Cue bewitched crossroads.

If Marcus is preeminent among this group as a critic, Guralnick strikes me as the most erudite and finally most penetrating. Marcus, in his brilliant "Presliad," elevated Elvis to the status of Serious Icon, but it was Gurlanick who gave us the thick description of The King in all his monstrous glory and heartbreaking banality. At the end of the day, though, I'll turn to Marcus first.

The source of my particular petty gripe about what Marcus has been doing lately stems from my having just completed his hugely disappointing 2002 book on The Manchurian Candidate for the usually excellent BFI film guide series. My initial thought was: who better to cover the terrain of this baroque masterpiece of pop anarchy? I'm afraid I must report that John Frankenheimer's crazy political allegory from 1962 has been poorly served here.

In the middle of this slim book, which includes a needless and lengthy plot synopsis, Marcus intones:

"Something -- something in the story, something in the times, in the interplay of various people caught up consciously in the story, and consciously, unconsciously or half-consciously in the times -- came together, with the challenges and warnings of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address still lodged in the hearts of those making the movie" (41).

This is the Marcusian pop-prophetic voice: flabby, self-indulgent prose that gestures vaguely at the main chance through invocation.

He returns to this theme in his conclusion: "What The Manchurian Candidate did prefigure -- what it acted out, what it played out, in advance -- was the state of mind that would accompany the assassinations that followed it" (75).

These stale New Journalistic tics -- the over-vaunted, valorized "Something;" the repetitive play on prefiguration -- is classic Marcus, working up a lather of rhetoric that substitutes exhortation for thinking and which invites the reader to share in intimate revelation; the pop critic as prophet. It "all" came together, man, in the 60s.

This book gives every indication of having been dashed off over a long weekend. Its method can be pretty much summed up like this: hey, I screened this film for these naive undergrads at Princeton; they had no idea what was going to hit them; plus, what's with that crazy dream sequence?

Dear Greil, you might want to look into something called montage. And while you're at it, a smattering of gender theory would not go amiss either. But don't stop there. Check out Jameson's ideas on the political unconscious. I know it's "theory," but it actually would help think through some of the problems the film poses. The book's conceptual weaknesses and its woeful inattention to matters of form are patched over by its chronological jumps (probably sold to the editor as innovative, but really just intellectually empty).

Marcus on The Manchurian Candidate is an embarrassing sentimental journey; a nostalgia piece about the movies of his youth -- and the domestic thrills of the Cold War -- filled with lazy, gratuitous references to the measure of all things, Dylan. The final gambit of the decaying Marcus style, I suppose, would be to read all of Western history and literature through specific lyrics from Dylan like some kind of deranged autodidactic savant. Or, come to think of it, like Harold Bloom shellacking the canon with Shakespeare.

For a critic, nothing is sadder than being a herald of a moment that's already passed.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles – Mark Scroggins

There’s an extraordinary excitement coursing through these new poems by Mark Scroggins. Electric with a kind of headlong internal enjambment & melodically stuttering parataxis (modernist spasms of ecstasy run face-first into moral entropy), they vibrate at a pitch where desire topples into the forbidden, the decayed, and the just plain nasty.

“Osaka Bondage”

Blind mouths pastoral suck bukkake
viscous splatter ablumenoid linseed fever
underpainted egg-white glazing ochre umber
common time waltz three-step coda
the smeared mayonnaise beaten yolk
do I look strange kidnapped
precipitous tropic rushed silent end.

This is the only poem I know of to make such cunning use of the perverse practice of bukkake. Or any use, for that matter. Reader, do not dwell on it. Or, if you must, reflect on the term’s circulation vis-à-vis Facebook’s recent public offering. As the narrator of the classic noir, Naked City, entones at the end of the film: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”


Torture Garden takes its unsavory name from a book of the same title I’m not likely ever to read, Octave Mirabeau’s kinky, savage satire on fin de siècle ethics. Formally, though, the poems take their cue from Zukofsky’s magnificent 80 Flowers – using 7 lines per poem rather than 8. But they're more than a gesture of homage from LZ's biographer; these poems stand wildly and entirely on their own as late modernist vignettes of metropolitan shock, snarling with polyglot street-smarts.

But if the profane gets plenty of bandwidth, the sacred is not neglected either, especially in a small run of poems dedicated to Michael Heller, Norman Finkelstein, Joe Donahue, and Peter O’Leary, each of whom works in the vein of a gnostic cum sacramental poetics. This is “Cairo Chop Shop,” for Heller:

Celebrated the birdsong and updates
of the letter made free
textured cloth sewn-in weight lead
brass golden yod cubits
and myriads poised to rise gold-webbed
damask between Jerusalem and sever
Athens unshielded poised to rise.

Intricately woven and tensile with thick layerings, this poem nevertheless almost floats off the page. “Jersualem and sever/Athens unshielded” is an exquisite syntactical stroke that out-Oppens Oppen.

The “procedure” in Torture Garden involves mashing up the eight million; the book is lustrous with quotation and allusion, most of which are lost on me, I confess, though I was amused to find a poem using A.E. VanVogt’s classic SF novel about superhuman mutants, Slan, for its title. None of this feels forced or contrived – there’s a powerfully cohesive music in these truculent rhythms and oblique combinations. Put another way, it’s a display of brute force from end to end, all sheer velocity and collision, a strange new beauty emerging from the rejection of beauty, a poetics in which “thought experiment keeps the real.” I love these poems – they’re like fragments torn from the margins of Benjamin’s Arcades Projects, scenes from violent media landscape that are swarming yet oddly serene. Brimming with surprise and speed, and teeming with ghosts and weird echoes, they expand the dark horizons of language; baleful clouds racing above a city’s shadows.

“S&M Sniper”

I will tell it like
it is simple words training
the mind’s eye on water
sand sunlight the nipple astir
under cotton voyeur dancing webcam
hard northeast wind and premonitory
hints of snow zippers latex.

On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes

Keith Tuma's amazing new book, On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes, is just out from Salt. More than a collection of random tales, it's also a daybook, a meditation on the role of the anecdote in literary criticism, and some first rate readings of a wealth of great poems. It's brilliant and impossible to put down.


Besides recounting numerous anecdotes, delightful in themselves, about literary figures, Tuma provides a useful history of the genre and its study, while formulating a theory that tries to account for the vital role of the extra-literary in criticism. It's less a method, though, than a style; Hugh Kenner figures as one of its great exemplars.

The anecdote strand is counterpointed by two others. The first is an intermittent daybook of public and private events modeled after Hannah Weiner's Weeks. Here's a brief sample:

"Cubs off for the day; talk of recession follows talk of housing slump. Gonzales quits. A white bag of finch food hanging out back blows in the wind. One can't be bewildered forever; eventually you're just a clod of unknowing."

Tuma's wit is delightful and these passages prove every bit as enthralling as the classic anecdotes woven throughout. The practice of the daybook here becomes less about the recounting of events, then the flow of experience through language.

Tuma's peregrinations while on leave from Miami University, Ohio, form the second strand. Among these are his trip in 2008 to Orono, where we bumped into each other and he described the project to me. (Our hotel rooms were adjacent and I remember coming back from a panel and hailing Keith and Tom Raworth as they enjoyed an afternoon drink on the measly patio that opened out on to the parking lot. I was in too much of a conference funk to join them, though).


Then there are the anecdotes. Tuma has a fresh and easy way with them; indeed the whole book reads like a lark. There's the oft told classic of Jeremy Prynne and Tom Pickard's dust up at Sparty Lea, which I first heard from Ric Caddell in Durham. (Or was it Peter Quartermain in Boulder?) And another one about Alan Golding singing up a storm at Orono in 2000, well into the wee hours. I was at that party, too, matching drinks with Mark Scroggins, David Bromige, George Bowering, Linda Russo, and Tom Orange. It was my first big conference and I thought, if this is academic life, I want more of it. Of course, I suffered from a massive hangover all the next day.


And there's this, a recounting of a story told by Alan Shapiro (anecdotes are nothing if not promiscuously transmissible) that's a barbed allegory of the writing life almost too good to be true:

"Marvin Bell and Mark Strand walk into a Barnes and Noble and head over to the poetry section. Bell looks at the books shelved under B, Strand at the books shelved under S. There's not a book by either poet in the store. 'I guess they don't carry my books here,' Bell says. 'Mine are sold out,' says Strand."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Linda Oppen at Harvard

Last October, I had the great pleasure of hosting a panel discussion at Harvard on George Oppen with his daughter, Linda, his Eagle Island friends, Bob and Helene Quinn, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. You can now view the event in its entirety on You Tube.


In addition, a separate interview, conducted by Columbia professor and oral historian Gerry Albarelli, can be heard on the Woodberry Poetry Room's website.

None of it would have been possible without the vision, passion, and extraordinary commitment of the Woodberry's Curator, Christina Davis. Scholars and lovers of Oppen's poetry owe her a great debt of gratitude.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Core Samples from the World

Forrest Gander's remarkable new book, Core Sample from the World, has just been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award. Gander, who studied geology as as an undergrad, makes sharp use of the idea of a core sample by shifting it from the vertical to the horizontal axis. Yet the book drills deep into the stratigraphy of the global human.


I've never studied with Forrest but he's been an extraordinarily generous supporter of my work, the kind that every poet dreams of. People revere him, and rightly so. Friends and colleagues who've worked with him, like Anna Deeny, Raul Zurita's translator, and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, whose powerful work on Edmond Jabes and Rosmarie Waldrop benefited from his eye, sing his praises. I think Peter O'Leary put it best when he said to me, "I'd take a poetic bullet for this guy." So would I. This nomination is richly deserved.

Here's what I wrote about Core Samples for Steve Evans' Attention Span 2011.

Forrest Gander | Core Samples from the World | New Directions | 2011

An itinerary of otherness, strewn with uncanny moments of tenderness and glancing blows that crack the fragility of conscience. The earth’s alien powder is sifted through, poured out, regathered in rich pulses of telluric current from the far side of everywhere. Poem, photo, and prose fold into and out of each other, remapping their own contours. The overlap and feedback amplifies into a kind of 21st Century global witness that is porous and humbling and strange. I can’t think of another book like it. Utterly extraordinary.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"Peculiar Language" or, Tuning into Gnostic Frequencies

Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Wordsworth's "Descriptive Sketches"
Biographia Literaria, Chapter 4

"In the form, style, and manner of the whole poem, and in the structure of the particular lines and periods, there is an harshness and acerbity connected and combined with words and images all a-glow, which might recall those products of the vegetable world, where gorgeous blossoms rise out of a hard and thorny rind and shell, within which the rich fruit is elaborating. The language is not only peculiar and strong, but at times knotty and contorted, as by its own impatient strength; while the novelty and struggling crowd of images, acting in conjunction with the difficulties of the style, demands always a greater closeness of attention, than poetry,--at all events, than descriptive poetry--has a right to claim. It not seldom therefore justified the complaint of obscurity."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Poetics of Failure: On Paul Nelson, Walter Benjamin, Ross MacDonald & Basil Bunting

The heartbreaking season of job applications is now fading gracelessly from the sharpness of ignominy to mere disappointment. The season of breaking the soul in love with a word down to a fine, bitter dust. Of scholarship and bureaucracy. Of hope and the grind of midwinter, as Lowell says in one of his more maudlin poems. Or as Beckett writes, “Throes are the only trouble, I must be on my guard against throes.”

Somehow it puts me in mind of the legendary rock critic Paul Nelson who, after his prescient early success, became even more notable for his failure. Reading the reviews of the new book on his sad career, Everything is an Afterthought, I was reminded that I met him once, in 1991. I’d flown to New York to see Jay Cocks, who I was working with on his script for Kathryn Bigelow about Joan of Arc. Paul and Jay were in the middle of watching Robert Siodmak’s classic early noir, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (a film I still haven’t seen – but I highly recommend Siodmak’s The Killers and Criss-Cross, both with a young, wire-coiled intense Burt Lancaster).


In a hired town car, the three of us set off for a destination that turned out to be The Bronx of all places. As we passed through the Burnt Over district and turned down an improbably well-lit, nicely kept boulevard, Jay reassured me that, “for certain reasons, this is a very safe neighborhood.” It soon became apparent what those were. We disgorged at a pavilion of late modernist neon called Mario’s where we were greeted by a very wide man in a pink dinner jacket whose neck, I swear, was larger in circumference than my thigh. I’m not even sure he had a neck. He extended a huge pink paw which was surprisingly gentle as he ushered us in.

I don’t remember anything about the conversation that night. What Jay said. What Paul said. All I remember was being made to eat a lot of Italian food. I mean a lot a lot. More than anyone should be made to eat. And thinking that if I didn’t the sinister guy named Nick who had an evil grin would shove my lifeless body into a back alley dumpster. That was my evening with Paul Nelson.


I recall it now because in this season of my own defeat it’s instructive to contemplate his odd, willful withdrawal into a self-imposed exile from writing. After creating a name for himself with groundbreaking pieces for Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy he ended up clerking at a video store and died a pauper, having subsisted, apparently, on little more than cokes and cigarettes in his final years. It’s a sad story of self-destruction, though I can’t help but feel that David Hadju’s review in the Times is more than a bit smug even it as struggles to assert the value of Nelson’s work.

Nelson idolized some of my own pantheon figures: Peckinpah. Chandler. Ross MacDonald. But his life stands as a cautionary tale for writers who embrace a certain kind of fatalism. Perhaps Hadju has a point, after all. Who of us doesn’t recoil from the logic of extremity, no matter how weirdly it may beckon? In that most magical and haunted of books, Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin recalls how his childhood wish to get his fill of sleep was ironically granted as an adult. “I must have made that wish a thousand times, and later it actually came true. But it was a long time before I recognized its fulfillment in the fact that all my cherished hopes for a position and proper livelihood had been in vain.”


I sometimes think these are the saddest lines I’ve ever read. For if hope cannot set us free, what can?

Which leads me, roundabout, to the detective fiction of Ross MacDonald. A couple of summers ago, Jay Cocks urged me to read The Doomsters. I found it gripping, but also overly plotted to the point of garishness. Nevertheless, I was hooked by MacDonald’s dark way with a sentence. I’ve since read The Underground Man, The Goodbye Look and The Barbarous Coast. What at first I resisted in his byzantine contrivances I’ve now come to see as the singular mark of his spiritual critique.


MacDonald’s baroque plot structures are not simply elaborate arabesques spun out for the purposes of prolonging the reader’s pleasure. Their intricacy – the way they unfold, double-back, and loop around – maps out the floor plan for the haunted house of history. The mind’s cunning labyrinth of justifications and self-deceptions – among the innocent and the guilty alike (the distinction is slowly obliterated in each novel) – mirrors a larger pattern: the way all social networks – family, friends, business, the law – are implicated in each other’s traumas, as Cathy Caruth puts it. History is indeed what hurts, and while Archer may set right some small wrongs, in the end he has always arrived too late to do anything but bear tortured witness, offering hope, as Benjamin writes, only for those who have gone past it, the hopeless.

For if history is to be more than an unbroken pageant of triumphalism then it must, as both Benjamin and MacDonald knew, attest to the failures – to those who were crushed beneath the wheel, cast aside; spurned, neglected, forgotten, and abused. I once thought of writing my dissertation about the poetics of failure, taking up the examples of Oppen, Niedecker, Bunting, and John Wieners, with Beckett as a kind of happy Charon (though I could have drawn just as easily from the life of Delmore Schwartz – who reads him anymore, that burned out glory boy?). It seemed too depressing.

But now, in midwinter’s solar hiatus, when the sun is a brief blinding flare above the horizon, I’m haunted by Paul Nelson’s legacy of abandonment. I think of MacDonald’s grim, doom-chased characters and of Lew Archer stumbling doggedly after them, as if he could catch and break their fall. I think of Bunting’s “Briggflatts” and the ejection of Alexander by the Angel of Judgment from the peak of a mountain into the Northumbrian grass and the song of the slowworm. Failure re-configured as the occasion for coming into the riches of humility.

Somewhere Terry Eagelton writes: “the mortified landscape of history is redeemed. Not by being recuperated into spirit, but by being raised, so to speak, to the second power – converted into a formal repertoire, fashioned into certain enigmatic emblems which then hold the promise of knowledge and possession.”

Just as in Benjamin, where “the concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe,” so the work of failure, like the work of mourning, is predicated on how traumatic loss is metabolized. Downfall produces rescue. And failure re-inscribes loss into the hermeneutical circle of self-possession: a re-reading that turns depletion into plenitude.

In “Briggflatts,” the poetics of failure transforms a fall from grace into a fall into grace. The expulsion from the violence of ambition leads to the welcome of Gelassenheit.

"But who will entune a bogged orchard,
its blossom gone,
fruit unformed, where hunger and
damp hush the hive?"


In other words, midwinter's counsel is to be secret, and exult.