Saturday, October 05, 2002
One point that I’ve made three times* since I began the Blog a little over a month ago is that themes, for me at least, don’t work. That is to say, I literally can’t read them. Them, in this instance, being poems with a point. When I try, the poem invariably loses my interest before I complete the text. My experience as a reader is that it feels like coercive sentiment & I find myself physically repelled by the poem. The affect is nausea. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the sentiment or not. Nor for that matter does it need to be about war or politics – I’ve had the same problem with any number of other noble topics, from AIDS to the environment to love.
Great political poetry – & by extension thematic poetry – is not impossible. I would point to Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” and Robert Duncan’s “The Fire, Passages 13” as two of the finest works of the past fifty years, let alone two of the best political poems. In each instance, the devastation & viciousness that is the essence of war** functions as no more than one axis around which a much wider range of reference is organized. The experience of each poem is to move outward, incorporating a broader & much richer cross-section of the world than, say, just the political. In the process, each contextualizes (thus making a case for the importance of) the underlying theme itself.
With its massive deployment of parallelisms invoking a tone right out of the Old Testament and the call-&-response oral traditions of the black Baptist church, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” is neither great poetry nor simply another commemorative bauble by Pinsky, Collins or Angelou. At one level, the poem is about the palpable but nonetheless abstract presence of evil in the world itself. At another, the dizzying juxtapositions that are yoked together via the constant question – “Who? Who? Who?” – play with the concept of paranoia itself. Anti-Semitism runs throughout the poem, not simply in the few lines that have been scattered widely about the media. So do anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism and a limited version of anti-racism. But ultimately it is the referential range of Baraka’s juxtapositions –
need fossil fuel when the sun ain't goin' nowhere
Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of
restricts the poet’s impulse. The poem exists entirely at the level of public
discourse. There may be moments of referential opacity if you don’t get a
reference, but none of intimacy. It may help some readers to know that “Little
Bobby” is Bobby Hutton, the first person to sign on with Huey Newton &
Bobby Seale in
The public reactions to this
poem have generally missed its playful elements as well as the way in which
that reiterated baseline who who echoes a genuine howl of grief that is also present
& perfectly audible in the text. It is in the nature of public discourse to
miss just such elements of life, poetic justice of sorts for a text that is so
** It matters little whether or not the war can be “justified.”
Friday, October 04, 2002
For a very long time,
There are several plausible
reasons for this – Robinson has stayed out of the academy*, seems genuinely to
dislike the hustle of self-promotion, doesn't haunt internet discussion lists –
but I would suggest that focusing on the lyric has itself been a contributing
factor. To the degree that this form of
poetry is too often not recognized as serious or "weighty," readers
miss out on what
Like the best poetry anywhere, this does not mean that Robinson focuses solely or obsessively on work or the office. Rather, he employs a discourse deeply informed by these vocabularies and terrains. It percolates up again & again. In this sense Robinson is truly a labor poet at a time when, with a few notable exceptions like Rodrigo Toscano & Kevin Magee, class has been largely erased from the post-avant landscape:
sun is like an X-ray
that deletes old voicemail messages
This simple passage works on so many levels – as humor, as science**, & finally as the incorporation of this intense "natural" Other into a scale of cultural minutiae on a par with answering machines. It's just one moment among many in The Crave, Robinson's new collection from Atelos, which I wish I'd written.
* An interesting choice for the son of an English professor.
** The sun really does give off rays & solar storms can erase data from magnetic media
Thursday, October 03, 2002
O for Opacity: I have been devouring the poetry of David Bromige with interest ever since I first went to hear him read with Harvey Bialy in 1968 at the Albany Public Library, a series curated by Manroot editor Paul Mariah. Having gotten to know the man and his work reasonably well in the ensuing 34 years, one might think I would not be surprised the nature of any new book by the British-born, Canadian raised author. One would be wrong.
As in T as in Tether (Chax, 2002) shows yet a new side to the bard of Sebastapol* as this master of erudition turns instead to mount arguments so densely packed as to resist yielding beyond the surface domains of the signifier. It's hardly accidental. The book, which I've thus far only partly completed (and am reading most slowly because I don't want it to ever end), is composed of four sections, the first subdivided into five sections, the remaining three each containing 16. The poems in the last three sections are numbered 1 through 15: each section contains one poem numbered 7.5. Of the 53 sections or pieces, only one (to which I have not yet gotten) is in a format other than the centered stanzas that we have most recently come to associate with the poetry of a very different Bay Area writer, Michael McClure.
Bromige announces the language as signifier theme in the first of the four sections, which the first piece proposes as an alphabet, literally:
B as in baffled
C as in congress
D as in delicate
E as in elephant
F as in fornicate
G as in grass
H as in hands-on
I as in idiot
J as in jouissance
The arbitrariness of the logic of the assignment of meaning is never more brutal than in the "obviousness" of any children's alphabet book, and gradually the poems in the first section turn up the heat:
O as in excitement
N as in Z
M as in breast
L as in party
K as in Whitman
The second section, "Initializing,"** is by far the most dense, reminiscent almost of Jeremy Prynne's work, as in this excerpt from "To a Drawing Board (2)":
roof drive impel
Hot brown register
Clever-fingered want to fall
Seizes rainy day
As long as you're there
So close as to shut
The trap is studded
Not this the lost access
To a final run
Then, gradually, the text opens up again almost as though it were a natural process that was being observed. Observe how, in the final piece in the second section, "Stands the Pencil on its Point," Bromige permits sound to gradually organize the ongoing text, which in fact arrives at a moment of absolute lucidity:
Names the soul
Whereon one stands
Church clock at ten to three
Orders weight be brought
As if to tea or table
Checks off by fives
Hot bodies in a hayloft
Options death or drunkenness
Insists that choice
Opens in the voice who
Upshot o love
Pen is sans relation
To its neighbor pencil
Feathers and lead
Islets of almost
Life's no narration
Up against the insulation
Poised on the links
Hands touch the keys
Print finish or begin
Write meet again
The process begins almost inaudibly with "Lists pains," that first p starting a run of three, the latter two of which end on the same ts as "lists," the word called up again in the echo of "insists" followed finally by that clearest of indicators, the rhyme betwixt "choice" & "voice." One can follow these details through the sly exploitation of Latinate endings right to the end of the text with its remarkable equation of "Write" with "meet," the role of the poem that absolute confrontation with a reader (who might also be oneself).
The use of centered lines mutes variations in line length, since the longer ones literally "stick out" less by moving out in both directions***. But what I think Bromige is ultimately after here is maximizing the verticality of the language experience, the way in each line does function as though it were a phrase flashing ever so briefly on an LCD screen. Writing/Meeting is exactly what this book is about. Tether is a thrilling, challenging & occasionally sad work, the poet confronting how the body, particularly one that has long battled diabetes, tethers the soul. It's one of those books that lets you see poetry responding to its highest calling. We have far too few of these.
* & current poet laureate of Sonoma Country, steering one hopes a solid middle course betwixt the nonsense of Mr. Collins and that of Mr. Baraka.
** The second, third and fourth sections, "Initializing," "Establishing" and "Authenticizing" derive their names from the stages of Bromige's computer's process of booting up.
*** Bromige alludes to the “spine” of the text, a spatialization of the left margin (and one that suggests that a poem “faces forward” when centered, and is viewed “in profile” when left as that normative left column).
Tuesday, October 01, 2002
I will be giving three readings in two days in New York City this month:
October 15, 2002 at 8:00 pm, New School, Tishman Auditorium at 66 West 12th St., NYC. Free. Short Fuse Launch Reading featuring Simon Armitage, Charles Bernstein, Glyn Maxwell, Bob Holman, Patricia Smith, Ron Silliman, Willie Perdomo, Todd Colby, Regie Cabico, Emily XYZ, Robert Allen, Edwin Torres, DJ Renegade, Zoe Anglesey, Adeena Karasick, Fortner Anderson, Prageeta Sharma, Wednesday Kennedy, Penn Kemp, Guillermo Castro, Mary O'Donoghue, Richard Peabody, Victoria Stanton, Vincent Tinguely, David McGimpsey, Helen Thomas, Barbara DeCesare, Corey Frost, Ian Ferrier, Joshua Auerbach, Robert Priest, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Catherine Kidd, Kevin Higgins, Rosemary Dun, Tug Dumbly, Ben Doyle Jill Battson, Kélina Gotman, Andrea Thompson, Dawna Matrix Jason Pettus, Heather Hermant, Larry Jaffe, Sean M. Whelan, Lauren Williams, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, David Hill, Silvana Straw, Srikanth Reddy, and MTC Cronin. Hosted by Todd Swift and Philip Norton.
October 16, 2002 at 6:30 pm, Jefferson Market Library, 425 Ave. of the Americas at 10th St., NYC. Free. Featuring Simon Armitage, Ron Silliman and Stephanos Papadopoulos.
October 16, 2002 at 7:30 pm, Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery & Bleecker, NYC. $5. Featuring Srikanth Reddy, Ron Silliman, Fortner Anderson, Adeena Karasick, David McGimpsey, Penn Kemp, Kevin Higgins, Robert Priest, Rosemary Dunn, Todd Swift, Philip Norton, Sean M. Whelan, Helen Thomas, Richard Peabody, Joshua Auerbach, MTC Cronin, Barbara DeCesare, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, David Hill, and Bob Holman.