Saturday, February 08, 2003
Reading a magazine that I have not yet seen, Tom Fink notes the containment strategy often imposed by conservative poets with regards first to langpo & then more broadly to the entire post-avant tradition.
I got a contributor's copy of the Winter 2002 issue of
Barrow Street, an eclectic
If we slightly correct Gioseffi and see Ashbery as a synecdoche for the New York School, Bernstein for the Language Poets – and such synecdoches repress much difference within those non-schools – and Graham for the recent Iowa Writer's Workshop trend to fuse mainstream and experimental poetic practices, then perhaps these 3 "tendencies," combined, may account for half of what's published in the poetry presses and magazines and e-zines. But the word "dominate" implies a lot more than half; it demonstrates the angst that you noticed in Edward Hirsch's claim that there were "too many" poetic experimentalists: 10,000 practitioners.
Gioseffi doesn't know or ignores that Language Poets are overtly political. Perhaps "difficulty" makes her use the label "solipsistic" (without conscience? apolitical?). Has she encountered the "Language" argument that the illusion of unmediated communication in "easy" poetry is itself an ideological construct in need of politicized demystification? Poetry educators like Juliana Spahr can and do talk with the "average reader" about politically progressive poetry that disrupts complacent expectations of transparent mimesis, but have her mainstream sources told her this? (Also, to read Ashbery as solipsistic is to miss a kind of Bakhtinian dialogism, a carnival where one can read social conflict into his poems' heteroglossia.)
To Pinsky's credit, he doesn't quite take Gioseffi's cues. First sounding like a serene, tolerant pluralist who will admit star experimentalists into his pantheon, he then exposes his biases:
As you have said, in
every kind [of poetry], some is good and some is bad. In relation to your
concern with social and political materials, it is true that the more cerebral,
self-referential or linguistically complicated the writing is, the safer or
more armored it is. For lesser writers than those you name, an avant-garde
surface is protection from the difficulties and embarrassments of subject
matter. Language poetry of that kind is safe; it cannot sprawl because it holds
its pose behind a protective wall of texture. Abstraction and opacity can be
places to hide from the difficulty or passion of the world or oneself. But what
about examples like Paul Celan – a great writer who is very difficult, often
opaque, and a great writer of the social and political tragedy of modern
Pinsky's concluding question is
very good, but Gioseffi parries it by going on to an unrelated question. When
Pinsky signifies on the usual safe/dangerous binary by making safe literary
forms/modes seem dangerous, some will find it clever. But the implication that
linguistic complexity is an evasion of psychologically difficult confession
("embarrassments") about the self's imperfections and its most
difficult emotions or an evasion of the difficulty of making a determinate
political judgment implies that the tasks being "evaded" are the "true"
tasks of poetry. What if confessional poetry a la Lowell or Sexton is seen as
just plain self-indulgent? What if a poet doesn't want to ignore the
complexities of political theory and praxis and thus refrains from making
"sound-byte" political judgments. The trope of "sprawling"
suggests that LangPo is "uptight," ignoring
how funny it often is, whereas poetry with clearly packaged
"personality" is more relaxed. What if the poetry of "subject
matter" that he implicitly valorizes is a protection against a more
difficult subject matter: relations between areas of linguistic
"experience" that are not immediately recognizable, that do not
easily fit together but have metonymic contact in the multiplicity of the
social spaces that people experience as their daily lives? Pinsky may see in a
Bernstein or an Ashbery that even when language itself is the subject matter, a
large part of the interest in such writing is investigation of the social
functioning of words, but he will not allow that framing assumption to be in
place when he reads "lesser writers" that he considers part of the
Language group. Near the end of the interview, Gioseffi weighs in once more on
the poetry she finds apolitical, this time differentiating between the LangPos and the
The language school of
poetry seems to be about art for art's sake; and the abstract or action poetry
schools, or the
Does action poetry=action
painting? Does she link the visual
Labels: School of Quietude
Friday, February 07, 2003
There is never a word nor syllable nor the slightest scratch upon the paper in any of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts that has not been thoroughly vetted through the mind &imagination of the poet. So when I find indeterminacy & surplus in her texts, I know that they haven’t gotten there by accident, that even when it appears “meaningless,” it means something.
I was reading “Draft 2: She” this morning, which is replete with such effects. A case in point:
Dabbles the blankie down
do throw foo foo
dles the arror
of eros the error of arrows
each little spoil and spill
all during pieces fly apart.
Splatting crumb bits there and there.
Feed ‘n’ wipe. Woo woo petunia
to get the fail of it
large small specks each naming
Red elbow kicks an
If my HTML skills were up to it – they aren’t – I might offer some even more extreme examples: there are are twelves places in this eight-page poem in which DuPlessis offers alternative word choices typed almost literally atop one another, as in “the mother/the monster” or “hurl/hole/hurt.” But, as DuPlessis herself notes in the passage quoted above, “large small specks each naming.” Just because these uses of alternatives & of baby talk don’t resolve to traditional denotations does not make them unmeaningful. Woo woo petunia!
The question here is what. At one level, “She” is about gendering the family & the intricacies of mother-daughter roles. At another, it’s about the acculturation of the child into the world of adult roles & values & systems, language foremost among them. It’s precisely in the use of language that cannot be resolved into normative concepts of meaning that I most hear the world as it was viewed by Louis Althusser, the late French political philosopher, at least in his saner moments.
Althusser’s observation was the world replicated itself through two systems – repressessive state apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). We are, all of us, only too familiar with RSAs, which include everything from stop signs to the Justice Deparment (even when it’s not in the hands of a maniacal neo-fascist like John Ashcroft) to the version our government is about to visit on the people of Iraq. ISAs are more numerous, more complex, more subtle & ultimately more powerful. The church, family, popular media, even poetry, generally fall in the Althusserian scheme onto the side of ISAs.
I should say something about ideology here, which in the Althusserian model is only incidentally about being a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or a Green, or even about being “for” or “against” capitalism. Rather, as Althusser saw it, ideology is that which calls your name & by which & through which you recognize yourself. As such, it is precisely a subconscious process, exactly the level on which the material signifiers of language operate.
For all of the
unquestionable pleasures of the Lacanian & for the ways in which, say, a
When I think of the poets of
the New American generation, three in particular seem to have made active
reference to, or use of, psychoanalysis in any form: Charles Olson, Robert
Duncan & Robert Bly.
Bly? Well, it rhymes with sigh. Invoking Jung in a very different light & yoking it first to bad translations of the especially narrow swath he cut through the surrealists & later to the Iron John one-man comic philosopher shtick, Bly went a long way toward making psychoanlysis, Jungian or Freudian, off-limits to a younger generation of poets unable to suppress their snickering.
Bly was one of a generation
of poets who was raised initially within the framework of the old
For a brief moment in the
early 1960s, Bly in particular made an attempt to forge a synthesis with some
of the next generation of New Americans, most notably
One of the great ironies in this is that the unconscious is to analysis what birds are to ornithology, and it’s the unconscious processing of poetry that’s of interest here more than the extrapolation of intellectual systems. It has long seemed to me that the New American who most directly raised the issue of the unconscious in his poetry was not Olson or Duncan, who tended more to talk about it, but Jack Spicer. Spicer’s use of contradiction & overdetermination is unparalleled in his generation & tugs continually at the ways in which we utilize & experience just such phenomena, not merely mentally but in day-to-day life.
It’s interesting in this
regard that there really was no such thing as a second generation
So when Rachel Blau DuPlessis roars out “Woo woo petunia,” I sense her taking up something that has lain untouched for some time in writing – not that it isn’t present, say, in the work of Frank O’Hara or any of another 100 poets you could name, but rather that it exists there unaddressed, not unlike the alcoholic uncle at the end of the couch nobody quite mentions. And I wonder if poets such as Coolidge (or even, for that matter, myself) have felt safer precisely because a discussion of the unconscious has been off the table for so many decades, as if we could venture into this territory knowing that no critical frames existed that could be usefully employed, precisely because they had been blocked by the use of the discourses (Freud, Jung, but as read by Bly or Duncan) that had been there previously. Like Grenier’s use of the literally subliminal in his scrawl works, DuPlessis gives us a writing in places – it’s not the only thing she’s up to here, just the one that I’m intrigued with today – that can only be forever beyond the rational. At one level, it’s a demand, a demand that we come to understand exactly what it means.
Woo woo petunia
* Although Rich’s pivotal poem “Diving into the Wreck,” made its first appearance in Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar.
Thursday, February 06, 2003
Unquestionably the most
ironic inclusion in the new issue of Radical Society
is Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian exile turned
Not that Codrescu can stop
himself from revisiting the past in introducing the work of Eugen Jebeleanu
(1911-1991), whom he characterizes as the “epic poet” of
The poetry we are offered in Radical Society comes from Jebeleanu’s later works, when he has become a lyric surrealist of a modern, maybe even post-modern type. Vasco Popa & Tomaž Šalamun are closer in temperament & style to the works that Mathew Zapruder has translated here (and elsewhere across the web – Zapruder has been the key to Jebeleanu’s arrival in the West) than Yevtushenko or Vosnesenski.
The poems themselves are
okay but the question they raise for me is one of value with regards to the
context of language & state. What does it mean to be a national figure as a
poet when the nation itself consists of just 22 million people? It’s a question
that bedevils any thoughtful writer, regardless of our proximity to the
imperial center. Twenty-two million people is notably
fewer than the number who live in
Twenty-two million certainly
makes a nation if it so chooses.
One Sunday last November, I posted an email from Juliana Spahr in which she argues for a diversity of literatures:
I think it is crucial that we all not be scared of the diversity of contemporary poetries. I think it is a great sign of health. I love it. I like to think, and I think it might be true even, that right now, when I am alive, right now there are more poetries or I have the possibility of reading more poetries than humans at any other time. What a huge weird world of poetries! I can't read it all. I admit it. But what a great thing.
Yet, now the note of sadness, what has happened is a peculiar myopia. I say this over and over, but one of the strangest, saddest?, things that is the result of this wealth is not that it is hard for readers, but that so few of these poetries talk to each other. So language poets and Nation language/Caribbean poets and pidgin/Bamboo Ridge poets and Scots poets and etc. all have these arguments against standard English. They are different arguments but they meet in various ways. And yet the poets so rarely meet in journals, in readings, at parties. What a lost opportunity.
Spahr’s complaint, which is completely legit, seems to me the obverse face of this same coin. For these poets to meet, to truly commingle & communicate, there has been a commons & little magazines are never that. Either they are local, if not to a region, then to an aesthetic, or else they are entirely shapeless. Neither strategy can claim to solve the problem of the minority language writer exiled within a city or state of another tongue. Neither can bring Jebeleanu’s poetry to us without the intermediation of a Mathew Zapruder (aided in Radical Society by Radu Ioanid). Writers who inhabit more than one such world – I’m thinking of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa as one example, but Edwin Torres could just as easily serve as another – never do so abstractly. They are as specific to their respective contexts, each one, as a human could be.
It’s not clear what the role
of poetry will prove to be in Radical
Society over time. The history of
Socialist Review doesn’t necessarily
auger well. The journal has had what can only be characterized as a tortured
relationship to culture over the decades.* The
presence of so much creative work in the first issue of the new regime is
noteworthy, but so is the somewhat scatter-gun nature of its aesthetics.
Hirschman’s Depestre and Codrescu’s Jebeleanu fall
into the category of a late modernism of the margins.
Where is Radical Society heading? We shall see.
* Thus the
journal may have published
** Thus it strikes me -- & the Sikelianos piece I looked at yesterday is what really drove this home – as being poetry for people who don’t read poetry, that curious genre. But does that expand the audience for poetry or merely absolve these non-readers from ever having to confront all of poetry’s gloriously incommensurate difficulties?
Wednesday, February 05, 2003
Reading Eleni Sikelianos’
poem, an excerpt from a longer text entitled “
Like a boat mid-air
The liners boiled their pastures:
The liners of flesh,
The Arctic steamers
Brains the size of a teacup
Mouths the size of a door
The sleek wolves
Mowers and reapers of sea kine.
THE GIANT TADPOLES
(Meat their algae)
Like sheep or children.
Shot from the sea's bore.
Turned and twisted
Flung blood and sperm.
Gnashed at their tails and brothers
Cursed Christ of mammals,
Snapped at the sun,
Ran for the Sea's floor.
No angels dance those bridges.
OH GUN! OH BOW!
There are no churches in the waves,
No passages or crossings
From the beasts' wet shore.
This poem, which McClure
read at the Six Gallery reading in 1955 that helped to spark the so-called Beat
Revolution – & not co-incidentally first pointed out to the world at large
bored American G.I.s stationed at a NATO base in
Although this is not the kind of poem that McClure is typically represented by in the anthologies, it is a type of poem that he has written his entire life. Its value lies not in McClure’s research – none is involved – but rather in the way he imbues the topic with emotion & narrative figuration. In a sense, this is the opposite of the “research poem,” whether of the Pound-Olson variation with their unintentional parodies of the scholar fumbling around in the archives or of the more journalistic “investigative poetry” approach advocated in recent decades by Ed Sanders. Another poet who literally made use of PBS and other mainstream media not only for ideas, but for layers of content thus displayed, was Larry Eigner.
When I was growing up as a poet in the 1970s, I used to hear other writers comment negatively – sometimes emphatically so – about this side of McClure’s poetry, as though it were a kind of debased product & that, in working from sources in everyday media, McClure was essentially revealing a kind of laziness that was at the heart of his project, not unlike the equally scandalous process of allowing other people type up his holographic manuscripts & perform what in the age of the typewriter was not an inconsequential function: the centering of his lines.
Somewhere along the line I decided that this was a bad rap. In an age where Andy Warhol & others – this was still pre-Jeff Koons – were utilizing assistants to help construct the work of art*, any insistence on doing your own research struck me as a kind defensive measure on the part of writers who felt that, if such aid & delegation were possible, then perhaps readers might not appropriately appreciate their own devotion to all the ancillary tasks that might envelop the act of writing. The work that struck me as the decisive argument for the permissibility of appropriated materials as a source for literature was Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.
The primary differences between Reznikoff’s approach & McClure’s are (1) Reznikoff’s focus was the social while McClure has been more drawn to the natural world & (2) Reznikoff’s approach to these materials has been one of minimal overt commentary, almost a deadpan transparency, while McClure’s has been one of a drum-beating & hollering display of empathy. Empathy, of course, has ever been “uncool” & “unhip” & I suspect McClure had to deal with that prejudice back in the 1950s every bit as much as in the 1970s & ‘80s.**
Sikelianos’ poem skips the drum-beating & ALL CAPS HOLLERING, but in fact is an act of empathic inhabitation of a milieu inhabitable today only in the imagination:
There was still the problem
of the mystery of regenerative forces here on Earth.
might have been prowlers & plunderers, lover of the lower orders of intelligence
They might have had a fortunate notes or eyes or horns
of surprising size. They were
4-handed animals or omnivorous quadrupeds or
My early Californians might have been 8-feet tall stomping around in the glacial ice
Ages-extinct fires nearly tiny dragon-headed lakes
bison four times the weight
of buffaloes, ground sloths the size of tanks,
giant shining armadillo roll over, silver
wheels crushing tender
Edentata belonging to the (inhabited) Earth,
edacious at the tooth
of Time, nibbling some sweet thing, fiery
Hymenoptera edulcorated by their history with men
Shades of Forrest
Writing of Earliest Worlds last
I noted how Sikelianos’ work there included lines that were “among the most
thoroughly conceived and written, most thoroughly heard (&, not coincidentally, felt) since Charles Olson was a young man.” Almost by its nature
& certainly by its genre, “
brings my back to Michael McClure & the question of choices in writing. The very qualities – empathy & narrative
figuration – that I suspect enabled the Radical
Society editorial board to include this work in the first issue of the
journal’s new life are those which are most apt to divide poetry’s primary
group of readers, who may well find it all too “inauthentic.” Since this is an
excerpt, it will be interesting to see how “
* If Sol Lewitt actually drew all those lines on art museum walls himself, he’d end up in the American Visionary Art Museum.
** Thus, for example, I don’t recall ever having seen an article that fully explored what I take to be McClure’s greatest contribution to poetry – his exquisite sense of the pacing of detail. It’s a side of his writing that shows up most sharply delineated in the cosmology poems.
Tuesday, February 04, 2003
is here. Its very first issue is
labeled Vol. 29, No. 1, because the journal is in fact a reinvention, a
resurrection of the old Socialist Review,
whose executive editor I was from 1986 until 1989*, originally founded
under the name Socialist Revolution
in 1970. You could, if you wished, trace the journal back further to a split in
the editorial board of Studies on the
Left in the 1960s, when one faction wanted to make that journal the
official publication of what was then presumed to be a potentially successful
revolutionary party that was seen to be forming in the
Socialist Review found a good deal of its liveliness & an even larger portion of its
own internal strains & turmoil in having not one, but two editorial
collectives, geographically distant, each with its own demographic, politics
& culture. That the journal survived as long as it did under the
stewardship of dueling collectives was itself a miracle, a marriage born to
some degree out of mutual convenience. Originally founded by a group centered
(and largely funded) by Studies on the
Left veteran James Weinstein (who would later create & publish In These Times), SR, as everyone seemed to call the journal, originally was the
project of a group of folks in the San Francisco Bay Area who had gone through
the 1960s together. Some were out of school & working as political
activists; others had gone on to grad school. All shared the perception that
the left in the
much reflected the history & fate of the ‘60s generation up until the early
1990s, when an attempt to “pass the baton” to a younger cohort ran into
difficulties, the collectives seemed to fall apart, as did a distribution deal
with Duke University Press. Now Radical
Society has emerged with a mostly new collective – SR veterans Barbara Epstein & Howard Winant
on the new editorial board – the term “collective” seems to have been retired –
as are, among others, Kira Brunner, a former editor
of Dissent & co-editor of The New Killing Fields; Peter Marcuse,
an urban planning professor from Columbia; Vanessa Mobley of New Republic
Books; fiction writer Rachel Neumann; Greg Smithsimon, a grad student at Columbia; Daraka Larimer-Hall, organizer for the Young Democratic
Socialists (the youth organization of Democratic Socialists of America); Ellen
Willis, author of No More Nice Girls
who teaches communications at NYU; and
Radical Society continues SR’s tradition of left contrarianism by making its big article in its first issue Ellen Willis’ “Why I am not for Peace.” While hardly an endorsement of George W’s cowboy imperialism, Willis does outline the case from a position not far removed from the one being made these days by Salman Rushdie, that Hussein must be removed to end the torment of the Iraqi people.
This is followed a column in
which four commentators respond to a blurb from U.S. Deputy Secretary of
Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. As interesting as the
responses are the respondents: journalist Abid Aslam, psychoanalyst George Saki,
Nation columnist Katha
Pollitt & poet
Nor is Bernstein the only
poet to show up in this issue. “Café Europa” is a
talking piece given by David Antin, presented here as an essay with curious
formatting. There is a sizeable selection of works by
* I stayed on the West Coast editorial collective until the pressures of a difficult twin pregnancy swallowed up what little time & energy I had available in late 1991.
was briefly an attempt to create a third collective in
*** Unfinished Business: 20 Years of the Socialist Review, published by Verso, is an excellent collection of pieces reflecting the perspective of both collectives (I write this as a co-editor of the volume). Even the blurbs on the back of the paperback reflect the tension between the two: Noam Chomsky weighing in for the Boston Collective, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for the West Coast.
Monday, February 03, 2003
One poet who appears to be
doing something completely different from virtually anything I’ve written about
on this blog is Marianne Shaneen – that at least is my first impression on
reading “from THE PEEKABOO THEORY: object permanence” in Snare 3, the first issue of I’ve actually seen of Drew Gardner’s
little magazine. You can miss Shaneen’s
work – it leads off an issue filled with writers whose poetry I already know I
like: Bill Luoma, Mitch Highfill, Elizabeth Willis,
Visually, it takes a nanosecond to see that Shaneen is doing something different. Her text fills the page as though it were prose & the long lines tend more toward the logic of the paragraph than that of verse, even within the broad range of post-avant varieties. Here are the first two passages – I started to type “stanzas” then stopped myself; they don’t come across with the feel of a stanza:
1825: Persistence of vision shown with the pre-cinematic Thaumatrope, a disk with an image on each side:
bird, wings up on one side and down on the other. eye, lid open on one side and closed on the other.
when rotated rapidly, the observer perceives
an eye opening and closing or, a bird in flight
I saw my breath today:
your absence has weathered its first change of the season
buzzer range I rushed down the stairs it must be you but only mailman. drops of sweat on my forehead betrayed my hopes while simultaneously becoming sign of hope’s betrayal: skin weeping or, I was wept.
By my count, that is eight lines of type: four, then one after a single-line break, then, after a noticeably longer break, three others in the second stanza-thingy. That I’m having to calculate this out & ponder the issue – I could be wrong in this, I realize – tells you a lot about how Shaneen attacks questions of form. The next line of the next passage includes both italics & boldface. When I said that her lines tend toward the logic of prose, it was not merely the length or prosody I had in mind, the relative absence of signs of compression that are so characteristically the graphemic signals of verse (but note the missing article in front of mailman), but that when lines “run over” the relative space of the page, they come back flush against the left-hand margin. No verselike hanging indents here.
What I don’t get, either in the snippet above or elsewhere in the ten-page excerpt in Snare, is a sense of Shaneen’s ear. She simply appears to have no interest in that dimension of the text. This seems important, if only because it will help to contextualize this piece for me, away from, for example, the information-junky aspect of Olson’s Projectivism, toward something that falls somewhere between the fiction of ideas & an enlightened notebook – philosophy in the literal sense of that word, rather than in the normative or even traditional senses of it. Rather, this work seems to seed concepts – the mail, cameras, blindness, shadow, writing, the game of peek-a-boo – into a field of action (I is present, you is missing in action, though also the addressee), permitting a maximum of consequences.
A writing of this type demands a high tolerance for ambiguity. An eventual volume of this text is, like a book length prose poem such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, certain to befuddle the beleaguered bookstore employee who has to figure out not only where to stock the item, but also where prospective customers are going to seek it out.* As a verse novel, it has less in common with Hejinian’s Oxota than with, perhaps, James Merrill’s The (Diblos) Notebook. The questions it asks of a reader are ultimately no less complex – for example, how to judge the question of figuration, or of character, terms seldom invoked these days with regard to the poem.
Another section of “THE PEEKABOOK THEORY” can be found in Beehive. Like what I find in Spare, it’s complex, often brilliant, but utterly unconcerned with the ear. It may ultimately turn out that the work of this Brooklyn-based performer, photographer, novelist & poet gets characterized as poetry, but I suspect that will be because this is what we have come to call things we don’t quite know what to call.
* Just watching how poorly bookstores handle a genre like the graphic novel should give some sense of how hard this is for them, especially in an age when many bookstores don’t pay well enough to attract serious readers for employees.
Sunday, February 02, 2003
I was explaining to a
would-be anthologist who asked, just how I had selected works for my anthology In the American Tree, how I had set up a
series of rules – writers had to have appeared in two or more contexts from a
specific set of journals & book publishers – that gave me a core list from
which I subtracted those who already had firmly established literary identities
(such as Bill Berkson & Larry Eigner), those who were not primarily working
in the United States (
tousle of damp hair
on the forehead
blur of leaf
and yellow sprinkling
of sun across the
window-sill – real
sweet and toasted
at the edge
warming up around
they creak slightly
and the eyes
cupboard from which
a dishtowel, red stripe
at each end, tumbles
into the light,
the rub of it
over wheezy nose;
and bowl spinning
toilet; the tulips
beside the garbage cans,
even a black one,
mixed nicely with
cans, a dozen;
oatmeal flesh numb
but horny, errands
that keep us
grovel of steamrollers
over the asphalt or
a yellow streetcleaner
with giant brushes
that rinse; the nightlight
forgotten until ,
for bathrobes or a
yellow or seagreen;
of cellophane or packed
gold ring, the first
thing, reaching over the
bed, the clock full
of water or dripping
with darkness; the grass
knifing up through
leaves face-down, birds
looking worried but
proud, a little frenetic,
swish of vehicles over
the breathing roads,
coughing motors, scattering
at crossroads; wall
of white tiles or
pills dissolving on
the tongue; wobble of
dripping milk cartons,
soft torn webs
behind the eyes and
brassiness like a
bit behind the tongue;
blowing the top
off a factory of
grammar school; fatigue
obsolescence in the
marrow – built-in
bone-dry or allergic
to the clouds
in the sky; iris wide-eyed
but coy in its bed;
sap returning like air
to a butterfly’s
wings, slowly opening
and closing like first
breath; tropical vine
drooping like an eyelid
under the eaves, one
side of the house
still asleep in the shade,
out of the ground
wet from brittle snails;
the doorknob befuddling
in its simplicity,
the door a blank; moths
flapping like bats
from mouths held open
with toothpicks; un-
foldable newspaper with
over the bark;
yawns steep as mines
or wells with
shaggy moss; the stranded
frog splashed in the
sniffing it; unplugged a
cork in the ear
floats away, a fly
stuck to the wall, drugged;
and squeaks, a dull
razor in the trash;
white foam cool
and stiff, hushed-
up; combing the sparks
from my hair, that
bright blue arc
beside the switch in the
hallway; and then
a record, something
spiny like Scarlatti
or heavy and driving like
the Stones; that lush
static off the diamond
paint chipped, blistered
peeling or powdered,
white siding shutterless,
roomfuls of night, eating
it up; putting out
flames right from the fore-
head, a cock, crowing
from God knows where, dirty
scratching up fire
from hard earth; probably
not possible, I didn’t
go to sleep, sat up all
night and just
to say it a little differently,
washed-out and touchy
a whole day ahead
Twenty-eight years after this poem first floored me when it led off Ready, a mimeo & staple volume published by Adventures in Poetry, retyping it simply for the pleasure of putting her leaves me positively dancing with excitement. Of course, I am obviously the right reader for this poem: its aesthetic of plenitude, of description for the sake of detail, plays right into the poetry I was writing then. As it still plays into my own aesthetic all these many years later.
The poem reappeared two years later in Stanzas for an Evening Out, one of the best books of that decade, possibly even the best. A 203-page volume published in what was, for a generation just coming into its 30s in the mid-70s, a large edition, 950 paperback copies & 50 hard cover, Stanzas was & still is an awesome demonstration first of ambition & achievement, but also of deep ambivalence toward the poem. In some ways, the book was designed precisely as a farewell to writing.
The title of the very first poem, “Second Generation,” offers a clue as to the origin of Faville’s great discomfort with poetry. To a degree unmatched in his generation (or for that matter, since), Faville had an uncanny ear for the poetry of his time & was an almost perfect mimic of any writer’s style. Here, for example, is Faville’s version of Grenier, an untitled poem:
This morning got up saw
THE WHITE GEESE
IN THE WHITE GRASS
then went back to sleep
One that recalls the first
The wire wheels of the Stutz Bearcat
when time applied the brakes
I saw the sensuous manifold
“The Knife in the Water,” a
poem whose subtitle acknowledges that it is “(after Polanski)” also keeps an
The object is
to keep the
the fingers of
like pick-up sticks
Bill Berkson, Larry Eigner, Louis Zukofsky, Jimmy Schuyler, Anselm Hollo & William Carlos Williams turn up again & again in these poems, often in complex duos – thus in “Aubade” I hear echoes of both Schuyler & Zukofsky, two New Yorkers not normally associated with one another. Ashbery & O’Hara & Berrigan also turn up, though less often. It’s a particularly 1970s gathering – very white male, for one thing – in part because the Creeley that turns up is the Creeley of Words & Pieces & in part because Grenier, who at that point still was close to unknown outside of a relatively tight circle of like-minded writers, is so visibly the uniting influence here, as though Faville has somehow found the Grenier in Berkson, the Grenier in Schuyler, the Grenier even in Williams:
of music an
makes to sound
trees in the
After Stanzas, Faville stopped writing for a while, then produced a short chapbook mostly of prose pieces called Wittgenstein’s Door, published by Tuumba in 1980. If Faville has written anything in the past 23 years, I haven’t seen it.
There are different ways one might read a volume such as Stanzas. One would be to dismiss it as a derivative project that invariably had to come to an end. This, I think, would be a serious mistake. Faville is, or was, derivative in much the same way as Robert Duncan, a self-proclaimed derivative poet*, using influences as tools, critiquing them in the same instant as he employs their devices.
One might also view the work
as an instance in which a gifted student
Rather, I read this work –
and I think this is both the most accurate & most fruitful approach – as if
it were an argument with Grenier. Faville shares much if not all of Grenier’s
analysis of the limits of a writing in which The Literary has been superimposed. What Faville doesn’t share is
Grenier’s conclusion. The same set of constraints that led Grenier into
language & the ultra-minimalism of Sentences
– really a mode of magnification, the tiniest elements blown up under the
microscope of inspection – to something beyond what most of us have traditionally
thought of as writing, which comes out in Grenier’s work as drawn poems, as
“scrawl,” take Faville to a position that shares more than a little with, say,
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
* Whose influence stylistically is not in evidence in Faville’s work. Nor is Olson’s. Faville’s interest in Creeley clearly did not spread to the more ponderous Projectivists.