Saturday, May 17, 2003

 

Nate Dorward rises to Charles Tomlinson’s defense.

 

 

Ron – while I wouldn't exactly go out on a limb re: Tomlinson – not an author I greatly admire – I should point out that it's a bit odd to see him cast as a failed opportunity to reach out to the 1960s Cambridge school & Raworth &c. Because in many ways the "Cambridge school" was at once sponsored by & a critical response to the work of Tomlinson's close friend & peer Donald Davie in particular (many of the key figures were his students), & Tomlinson himself has a detectable imprint on the Cambridge writers too – John James for instance was a student of Tomlinson's, & they still correspond & exchange books. Andrew Crozier's critique of mainstream British poetry in "Thrills & frills" places Tomlinson in a key role.

 

I think you're also missing the point somewhat in speaking of him as a rather touristy anecdotalist. I'll toss in a paragraph Keith & I wrote on Tomlinson for a survey of British poetry 1945-70. [See below]  It's not much but at least gets at the core concerns of the verse with phenomenology – an ethics of seeing and being in the world. Not that I would especially disagree about the flaws of the verse: in particular, the fussy & clenched prosody & diction, which tend to make the poems feel like they're bolted to the page; & an irritating haughtiness of tone. For all its concern with dialectic, it's notably lacking in empathy. That said, there's some decent poems if one picks through patiently; probably as good a case as any is made for his work in Keith's selection in the OUP book, which isn't too bad, though it's too generous to Annunciations (3 selections). The basic problem is that, like so many authors, he ended up writing basically the same poem over & over again, never setting himself any real challenges beyond the very occasional influx of new subject matter (e.g. the turn to political poems in The Way of the World). I suppose this is what you're getting at via "anecdotal": the lack of serious interest in sequence-length writing, or in larger or more ambitious architectures, is notable, & ultimately is what makes me give up. – There's a smart & unsparing critique of one of Tomlinson's earlier poems, "On the Hall at Nether Stowey", in Peter Middleton's article in Gig 4/5 (the Peter Riley issue), by the way.

 

A pity that the planned public discussion with Tomlinson to be conducted by Bernstein & McCaffery (I think it was originally scheduled for the 2001 MLA) never took place – if I remember rightly, Tomlinson cancelled in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Might have been an interesting dialogue of the deaf, at least, but maybe more than that. One oddity of Tomlinson is that his earliest interests were apparently in surrealism but none of this has seen the light; with the exception of his visual work, which uses Max Ernst's decalcomania techniques.

 

all best – N

 


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From, Keith Tuma and Nate Dorward, "British Poetry 1945-1970," forthcoming in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature, edited by Peter Nicholls and Laura Marcus, Cambridge University Press:

 

..... One last example, Charles Tomlinson’s 1958 poem “The Atlantic”, whose opening sentence appears to run on directly from the title:

 

Launched into an opposing wind, hangs

 Grappled beneath the onrush,

And there, lifts, curling in spume,

 Unlocks, drops from that hold

Over and shoreward.

 

A debt to modernist styles is clear in such a passage: its forceful shifting of verbs to the start of lines is reminiscent of our example from Bunting’s The Spoils, while the device of the run-on title and the poem’s preoccupation with the shore as liminal site owe something to Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and “A Grave”. Like many Tomlinson poems “The Atlantic” is at once an essay in the description of the natural world and a meditation on the phenomenology of perception: the syntax is rigorously mimetic in its attempt to suggest the movement of a wave toward the shore, but “a wave” is never actually named, as if to emphasize the mutable nature of both water and of the perceiving mind. There is common ground here with the Movement, however, in that such phenomenology is intended also to propose an ethics: like many a Movement poem, “The Atlantic” ends with an explicit summing-up: “That which we were, / Confronted by all that we are not, / Grasps in subservience its replenishment.”

 

[p.s.: note that interesting tense contradiction in the last lines of the poem ("were/are") – deliberate? If so, it's a lot craftier & more linguistically interesting than Tomlinson was to be later on: something he dropped from his repertoire.]



Friday, May 16, 2003

 

I’ve been thinking about poetry & types. By which I think I mean something more or other than just genres. I was, for example, thinking the other day, as I referred to the evolution of humor in Charles Bernstein’s poetry of his other writing from early in his career, poems such as “The Klupzy Girl,” “Part Quake,” or “For Love Has Such a Spirit That if It is Portrayed It Dies,” all of which you can find in In the American Tree. These are works, it occurred to me, of a sort that Bernstein seems unlikely to write again. As he has evolved, Charles has moved away from being that kind of poet, whatever “that kind” implies.

 

Not exactly in a parallel vein, when I characterize Fanny Howe as not being the sort one would associate with the form of “poem as essay,” I realize I’m making not one, but at least two separate assumptions, the first about Howe’s writing & work, the second about a genre, or more accurately an intergeneric form. In my mind, for example, the “poem as essay” is something I closely associate with Francis Ponge, especially the great volume, Soap. More recently, Lyn Hejinian has explored this territory – one could even read My Life as representing a special subcategory – both solo, as in Happily, and in collaboration, with her volume Sight, co-written with Leslie Scalapino. Tho I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on the blog just because I read it long before I started this, Sight is easily one of my five most favorite books over the past half dozen years & probably the one I would name first if someone were to ask me to cite one recent volume of poetry that had expanded my conception of what was/is possible in the poem. One could take the “poem as essay” in a lot of different directions, including David Antin’s talking pieces or even some of the work of Alexander Pope. But when I think of it, something midway between Soap & Sight is closer to what I’m expecting.

 

Much, perhaps all, of this has to do with expectation, with what I happen to bring with me to the poem. I have written about the impact of readers’ expectations on the blog previously, as part of the Noah Eli Gordon-Matthew Zapruder difficulty discussion, but it also plays a role that I hadn’t particularly focused on before, one which Rob Halpern Wednesday brought to mind. Halpern makes the case that Aloysius Bertrand both knew & did not know the implications of his amalgam of prose & verse, and that Baudelaire himself was scarcely in a better position. That is, to generalize from these instances: no poet can fully comprehend what the future might find in his/her work.

 

This creates what I think of a Revolution of the Word problem – a poet might intend to change the world with his/her poetic innovations, but seldom if ever is in any position to ensure that subsequent readers happen along, also poets, who extend or deepen these revolutionary impulses. When you think of which poets lived to see the scope of their influence on writing, you quickly begin to realize how very happenstance this turns out to be. A case in point might be Gertrude Stein, who was certainly influential, especially within the context of the Paris scene between wars, but who did not live to see even a fraction of the impact that her work was to have on poetry in the fifty years following her death. For every Melville, Dickinson, Ceravolo or Niedecker, who really don’t get to see their own impact, you have a Pound, Pynchon or Joyce, who clearly do. Even today the social process that surrounds this still seems so capricious that poets in the post-avant traditions rejoice whenever a Christian Bök, Harryette Mullen or Alice Notley has a genuine crossover success.

 

Which takes me back again to the question of expectation. What does the poet expect when he or she sits down to something a little, or more than a little, different from anything that’s been written before? It’s a radically different position from the one faced by poets in the various schools of quietude – those writers are working in order to belong to a heritage conceived as largely continuous & without disruption, they’re writing to belong – doing something different is exactly what they don’t want to be doing.

 

I’ve written before that I think that older poets, such as Ashbery or Creeley, largely are getting a bad rap when younger writers complain that their work has stopped evolving, because I don’t think that their work – or anyone’s, including yours – is about the creation of novelty for its own sake. Rather, I think that they have helped to change poetry in some rather profound ways in order simply to clear the space they needed in order to do their own work. Having cleared that space, it seems churlish & ultimately foolish to think that they need to go out & clear another, then another, like Toll Bros. realtors, perpetually seeking new outer suburbs to colonize for “executive” semi-custom homes.

 

Bertrand & Baudelaire, not unlike Wordsworth & Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads, reflect an historical consciousness that they are in fact clearing just such spaces. Yet what distinguishes the French from the English in this example is that they are also consciously creating something they believe logically shouldn’t exist – Wordsworth’s Preface largely argues the opposite perspective, that their work is more natural, not less. Baudelaire’s dedication of his poems in prose to Arsène Houssaye strikes me as clearly triumphal in tone. He might not have known precisely where this was going to take either him or the poem, but he knew that he had breached some sort of barrier condition & that, once surpassed, there was no real turning back.

 

History shows that it’s easy enough to replicate that triumphal tone without, in fact, doing much of anything in the way of work. Thus, just as every metroplex has its local beat poet penning bardic sentimentalisms, the post avant world suffers through its Stanley Berne & Arlene Zekowski types as well, whose utopian sloganeering is hardly matched by imaginative verse. In a curious way, this sort of revolutionary verse replicates the problem of the poetics of quietude – it wants merely to belong, just with a different crowd.

 

Yet if you read Baudelaire’s dedication, & especially if you contrast it with the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” historically almost a parallel phenomenon, I think you can’t escape the question of Baudelaire’s expectations. He knows something is going to come of this, he just doesn’t know quite what.



Thursday, May 15, 2003

 

Certainty has killed more people than doubt.

 

This thought echoed in my mind repeatedly as I read “Doubt,” a prose poem / meditation / essay, just five pages in length, that makes up the second of the five sections that compose Fanny Howe’s new book, Gone.

 

“Doubt” considers the problem of belief as presented by Simone Weil, flanked on either side by Virginia Woolf’s suicide & the death in the Auschwitz gas chamber of Saint Edith Stein, the one-time Husserl protégé, born an Orthodox Jew & for a time an atheist, who became a Carmelite nun. Along the way, both Dostoevsky & Hannah Arendt also make appearances.

 

Howe, as anyone who has read her work must realize, is one of the most intensely moral human beings ever to write poetry. Moral not in the Bill Bennett sense of prescribing right vs. wrong, but rather – & this is a large rather – in her commitment to honesty & questing for truth. That’s why, at least in part, writers who share very little, if any, of Howe’s profoundly Catholic mysticism nonetheless can be completely persuaded of the importance of her work.*

 

Weil’s writing has been used by her advocates – Howe clearly is one – to raise her death by anorexia out of the realm of pathology into a question of choices. What is so interesting – & characteristic – of Howe is that she’s after something altogether different here. Having drawn connections between these three premature deaths of women during the war years of the 1940s, Howe notes that each

 

sought salvation in a choice of words.

 

But multitudes succumb to the sorrow induced by an inexact vocabulary.

 

I cannot imagine a contemporary reader coming across this & not hearing Jack Spicer’s last words, recounted by Robin Blaser at the end of his lengthy essay, “The Practice of Outside,” that concludes Spicer’s Collected Books:

 

My vocabulary did this to me.

 

The concept of a lethal vocabulary joins these two deeply religious poets – Spicer’s own skepticism** isn’t at all remote the experience of St. Stein or Weil &, though Howe herself doesn’t draw the connection, Woolf’s filling her pockets with stones in order to drown speaks to the same sense of an insubstantial body that Weil sought through starvation.

 

But Howe does something that Spicer either doesn’t or can’t – she names the lethal vocabulary: inexact.*** Yet the problem of exactness presents precisely the question of certainty. & conversely the problem of doubt. Doubt & belief are clearly the sides of a particular coin, in which will & self are deeply entwined. Poets, Howe notes, “tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind.” Thus, although Howe doesn’t quite say this, poetry might be understand as a form that nourishes doubt. The reason that Howe doesn’t, as near as I can tell, is that she equates doubt also with the “abyss of nothingness that opens up before any deed that cannot be accounted for” – the quotation belongs not to Howe but to Arendt. This would be as true for good as it is for evil. It could, & again this is something that Howe does not say, be true also for the poem, almost by definition a “deed that cannot be accounted for.”

 

All these things that Howe doesn’t say form as much a part of this poem as the things she does:

 

Is there, perhaps, a quality in each person – hidden like a laugh inside a sob – that loves even more than it loves to live?

If there is, can it be expressed in the form of the lyric line?

 

Thus I find myself in the curious position of “arguing” with a poem. Doubly curious, in that I’m not at all certain that I don’t, at some deep level, agree with Howe’s unstated premise, that doubt, held properly, has the capacity to heal.

 

Coming out of a century in which certainty gave us the gulag, the holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, coming into a century in which a single world power feels uninhibited in its use of unilateral deadly force, in its capacity to hold prisoners without recourse to the right of habeas corpus, in its willingness to cancel any aspect of the Bill of Rights it sees fit to ignore, I find myself troubled deeply by the promise of certainty, which invariably must also be the promise of belief. Howe’s heroines, at least Weil & St. Stein, represent instances of believers who arrived at this state through doubt. By means of language.

 

This is why Virginia Woolf is such an interesting figure in this poem. It is she whom we see first in this poem, having

 

committed suicide in 1941 when the German bombing campaign against England was at its peak and when she was reading Freud whom she had staved off until then.

 

“Staved off,” i.e. repelled, as though Freud represented what exactly?

 

Which in turn makes me think of the poet who is not mentioned here, Hilda Doolittle, who, whatever the wreckage of her own personal life, survived the war & did not merely read Freud, but had in fact been his analysand.

 

If you read Howe’s poem, you will see not merely that I am arguing with it – even where arguing might not mean disagreement – but that I am doing so almost wildly “out of order.” Which is to say that, for me at least, Howe’s “Doubt” proceeds not in a linear fashion, certainly not in the logical sequencing we associate with the dull progress of the undergraduate essay, but rather that it circles its topic, or intersects with it at multiple angles. 

 

“The poem as” is its own genre. The poem as journal, as letter, as novel. As essay, it so happens, is one of the more mature intergeneric modes. It’s not a form that one associates automatically with Fanny Howe, deservedly known as one of the finest lyric writers of our time, but it’s one she handles with the same fearless commitment she brings to everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* There are days of the week in which I would say that this is the answer to one question I’ve heard on several occasions: what makes Fanny Howe a language poet?

 

**             Get those words out of your mouth and into your heart. If there isn’t

A God don’t believe in Him.

 

Or, later in the same sequence for Ramparts, in Book of Magazine Verse:

 

Mechanicly we move

in God’s Universe, Unable to do
Without the grace or hatred of Him.

               

*** That at least is Howe’s name for it. There is, of course, no assurance that Spicer would have agreed to this characterization of the issue with regards to himself.



Wednesday, May 14, 2003

 

Rob Halpern wrote concerning my reference of Aloysius Bertrand in my blog the other day about Merrill Gilfillan, who long ago translated some 30 poems from Gaspard de la Nuit, a work Baudelaire cites as the inspiration for his own poems in prose. –

 

 

 

Dear RS,

 

I wasn't too surprised to find the parenthetical "(unlike Bertrand)" in yr recent blog comment of 5/7: "I recall how, reading Baudelaire’s prose poems which (unlike Bertrand) Baudelaire knew in advance to be both prose & poetry & realizing that Baudelaire was clearly counting sentences so that more than a few turned out to be 14 sentence poems, I got so excited I could barely stand it."

 

Bertrand may not have understood the historical contradictions his curious technique of hybridizing poem and prose was registering. To be sure, the "meaning" of his form, and the social allegory it was performing, eluded him; but the historical meaning of Baudelaire's own form arguably eluded him too – despite his strong sense of it – just as our own are bound to elude us. What we "know" ourselves to be doing "in advance" must always be something else or other, no? There is no question, however, that Bertrand knew himself to be writing both poetry and prose while he was working on his book; hence, the rich tensions that obtain between, on the one hand, the comment "I tried to create a new genre of prose," which appears in a letter to the sculptor David d'Angers* when Gaspard was collecting dust in the drawer of his would be publisher, Eugene Renduel (who bought the work for a small price only to allow it to languish unpublished for fear of bad sales), while Bertrand, indigent and tubercular, was really struggling to survive; and, on the other hand, the note "to Monsieur Typesetter" appended to his manuscript in which Bertrand emphatically specifies the amount of white space designed to appear between his prose "stanzas," and along the margins of his page: "as if it were poetry," he writes. Anyway, your comment isn't unlike many other similar misreadings of Bertrand – from Saint-Beuve and Baudelaire, to Mallarmé and Breton – which, despite their enthusiastic appreciation for the work, fail to grasp Gaspard as the product of a historically specific labor. In fact, I would argue that calling Bertrand's compositions "prose poems" amounts to a misrecognition – something along the lines of a genre fallacy – one that assimilates a particular innovation to a later formation with which it shares no "generic" features. Baudelaire himself recognized this when he referred in the letter to Houssaye to having fallen short of his model and to having produced something "singularly different". I think it's important to our understanding of the "pre-history" of the 19th c. avant-garde – and of the development of poem/prose hybrid forms in general – to comprehend and respect that difference, and to do so equally from the side of Bertrand's own singularity.

 

Sincerely, Rob Halpern

 

 

 

 

* A sketch of Bertrand’s corpse made by d’Angers can be found here.



Tuesday, May 13, 2003

 

Reading “In Particular,” the first of the four poems gathered into Let’s Just Say, an intensely beautiful chapbook by Charles Bernstein just out from Chax Press, I remembered listening to Charles read the poem aloud last fall at The New School as part of the launch activities for Short Fuse: The Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry, edited by Todd Swift & Phil Norton, where the poem first appeared.

 

At the time I remember being struck, as I have on other occasions when I’ve heard Charles read, especially over the past decade, at the degree to which Bernstein reminds me of the late Allen Ginsberg. They’re very different people, poets & readers, of course, but what they share in common is a fundamentally satiric approach to their art, an approach that, it seems to me, is not always understood or appreciated as such. In part, I suppose, that’s because our culture – Official Verse Culture as Charles would say (OVC), tho the issue extends beyond just that slice of the aesthetic torte – tends to devalue satire. But this similarity also is  because each poet ultimately has proven so important to the history of American letters that their presence & influence can’t be understated. One way not to understate their importance, by this convoluted logic, is to understate the role of the comedic in their work. They’re hardly the first writers to suffer this misimpression – you have to wade through a lot of critical worshipfulness to reach the clowning in Pound or Joyce as well & a lot of readers still don’t get it in Olson.

 

Bernstein has inoculated himself from this problem partly by approaching the problem as Stein did, foregrounding humor. But he has also inoculated himself from the one problem that Stein in her lifetime never solved – not being taken seriously – through as judicious a management of OVC institutions as any poet in my generation.* Bernstein Amid the Bureaucracies will someday make for a fascinating exploration of the social structures surrounding verse at the end of the 20th century & start of the next. And it should be noted that Charles was careful not to foreground humor too often too early in his career. Whether one reads the narrative of publication as one of evolution, Bernstein becoming more of a comic over time, or one of the careful sequencing of disclosure as to just how funny he is, Bernstein is now clearly in a position to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. For an artist, that is as close to a perfect situation as one could imagine.

 

“In Particular” is a poem of 107 lines, virtually every one of which consists entirely of a complex noun phrase involving a person. Here is the opening passage, revised slightly from the version that appeared in Short Fuse:

 

A black man waiting at a bus stop

A white woman sitting on a stool

A Filipino eating a potato

A Mexican boy putting on shoes

A Hindu hiding in igloo

A fat girl in blue blouse

A Christian lady with toupee

A Chinese mother walking across a bridge

A Pakistani eating pastrami

A provincial walking on the peninsula

A Eurasian boy on a cell phone

An Arab with umbrella

A Southerner taking off a backpack

An Italian detonating a land mine

A barbarian with beret

A Lebanese guy in limousine

A Jew watering petunias

A Yugoslavian man at a hanging

A Sunni boy on scooter

A Floridian climbing a fountain

A Beatnik writing a limerick

A Caucasian woman dreaming of indecision

A Puerto Rican child floating on a balloon

An Indian fellow gliding on three-wheeled bike

An Armenian rowing to Amenia

An Irish lad with scythe

A Bangladeshi muttering questions

A worker wading in puddles

A Japanese rollerblader fixing a blend

A Burmese tailor watching his trailer

The last two lines of the poem reiterate in inverted form (but with the gender of the figures switched) the first two above.** While each line presents a complete image, if not statement, there are no predicates here – essentially the same formula as Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps. But where my 1978 prose poem focused on the question of what happens to predication & action when the verb is absent, Bernstein, by virtue of a much stricter parallelism, focuses instead on the construction of figures, one might say of social personhood.

 

Bernstein first begins to reveal his strategy to the reader in the fifth line, an incongruous juxtaposition of a Hindu “in (article absent) igloo.” The lines aren’t depictive, but representative, specifically of categories & structures. It very quickly becomes evident that each element in these seemingly simple ensembles is built up out of a repertoire of social codes that can fit together with the substitutability of a child’s toy – insert your favorite image of Legos, Tinker Toys or Mr. (or Mrs.) Potato Head here. Yet the humor rises precisely where (& how, & why) terms aren’t infinitely interchangeable. The presumed social neutrality – the “purity” – of syntactic structures becomes clotted, clouded & lumpy as the real world, with all of its biases & complex schema of race, class, age, body type, religion or what have you attempt to pass through it. This literally is the content of the two epigrams that head up the body of Bernstein’s text, the first from his son Felix:

 

I admit that beauty inhales me

but not that I inhale beauty

 

& the second ascribed to “the genie in the candy store”:

 

My lack of nothingness

 

Bernstein’s point, to the degree that a comic poem can be characterized as didactic, is that Chomsky’s infamous impossible sentence, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” becomes such in the everyday world – the sentence has long been shown to be meaningful within the realm of poetry – not for reasons of grammar, but reasons of society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Admittedly, Bernstein has not had as tough a problem in this regard. Stein seriousness was discounted because she foregrounded humor, but also because of her gender & sexual orientation.

 

** It would be a whole other discussion, although one worth having, to consider whether such a gesture toward symmetry – really a bracketing effect – constitutes real closure, a gesture toward closure or even possibly a satire of it.



Monday, May 12, 2003

 

Primitive Press is a funny name for a publishing venture that would print a book such as Kristin Prevallet’s Lead, Glass and Poppy (LGP). The one-time co-editor of Apex of the M & author of the notorious “Why Poetry Criticism Sucks” is very possibly the least primitive poet around these days. In the ten years since I first became aware of her work – seeing it literally for the first time in the O•blēk 12 New Coast anthology – Prevallet has produced a substantial body of work, to date gathered mostly in a series of small chapbooks. Lead, Glass and Poppy is one such volume. Emulation Etudes, from Phylum Press, is another. Why there isn’t a large volume from Wesleyan or Penguin or FSG is the real mystery here.

 

LGP signals its complexity instantly when the text starts on the left-hand page – something publishers do only when they absolutely must, less they be taken for rank amateurs at design & production. There is, thus, an absolute necessity – the same holds true for Wanders, the Nomados Press production of a collaborative series co-authored by Robin Blaser (always on the left hand page) & Meredith Quartermain (always on the right). With LGP, it is because the poetic text on the left-hand page is commented upon, sometimes obliquely, by more prosoid journalistic comments that run down the right. These aren’t footnotes – in fact, the commentary to the right itself has endnotes (numbered, in contrast with the asterisked title line on the title page), providing sources. In short, the poetic text – the theoretical center of this work – is functionally surrounded by at least two layers of commentary, not unlike the Larry Eigner poem situated in his correspondence to Raddle Moon in what I called a palimpsest of meta-thinking the other day.

 

Poetic metacommentary of this sort has been around at the least since Eliot footnoted The Waste Land – I suspect you could trace the contextual impulse back at least to Lyrical Ballads if you tried. Eliot it was instantly parodied by Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’,” although one suspects, looking at LZ’s subsequent career, that his parody was mixed with a serious dose of envy that somebody had gotten to this idea first. Pound’s use of polyvocality & Olson’s extensions thereof can be seen as parallel impulses – it turns up even in such places as Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery, in which the footnotes present a detailed history of a period of American poetry, or in Fred Jameson’s Marxism and Form, which has only one footnote & that about footnotes.

 

This is the dark underbelly of ”first thought, best thought” – sort of “first thought, myriad second thoughts” – a wool-gathering web of digressions lies at the heart of such classic tales as Tristram Shandy or The Saragossa Manuscript & Prevallet indulges a little in the verticality of the impulse herself, using endnotes to reference sources that might as easily have been incorporated into the running comments along the right hand column.

 

Which, of course, raises the question why? One interpretation – the one I’m drawn to – is that the texts on the right, which also look like a poem, merely in a different font & with the numbers of the footnotes as a curious ornament at the end of every stanza, can likewise be read as a mode of journalistic poetry. In fact, I tend to read the poem on the left as a single eight page poem, while the commentary on the right – in a different font – comes across to me as a series of ten shorter poems. This would also explain why the left-sided text is biased to the right margin right up until the final page/stanza, which is printed centered on a page with no facing commentary.

 

Here, to give a flavor of the text, is the left-hand page 9, which also just happens to be in the exact center of the book, so that actual staples poke through between it & the comments to the right:

 

The spine in the book is a crease in time

and we’re lowly waverers

between the cracks

of what might seem to be

unreachable but true

(because printed)

for certain, and spreading

 

through the tracks buried over

where have you been

when needing you stuck

here where the dawn

and the day that meets it

can’t get it on enough to say:

 

“Here is a house.

There is another’s home.

At the corner is an arsenal.

Pick this one up and explode, here.”

 

A number of the right-hand commentaries refer to the Order of the Solar Temple cult, 74 of whose members committed group suicide in Canada, France & Switzerland, as does the text facing the one above, which appears on page 10:

 

France-2  television

broadcast what it said was

a taped telephone conversation

between two disciples shortly before they

died in Switzerland in 1994. They chat about

a program which says the sun is half-way

through its life.

“But in any case it’s been organized,

we’re going to Jupiter.”

“So Venus is out? I think we’ll first

go to Venus.”

“We’ll see. I don’t give a damn.

The main thing is to go where we have to go.”8

 

Footnote 8, located on an unnumbered page to the chapbook’s rear, merely sites “Untitled, Reuters, March 21, 1996.”

 

This is a deliberately unsettling, de-centered performance, executed superbly.* There is a somber wit at work that sees the connection between the perpetually self-deconstructing text – a crease in time, literally at the point of the book’s spine – to the delusional belief of cult members that they can hitch a ride on the next comet out of here if they but “drop the body” at the right moment. The text on the right, if we can talk about it as a complete poem, is extraordinarily sad, regardless of the ridiculousness of the surreptitiously taped conversation. As a work in its own right, its bleakness is unrelieved. Set into the larger ensemble that is LGP, however, it is contained, framed rather as one detail amid the slow-motion holocaust that is contemporary life.

 

Which is why, ultimately, so much depends on the final page, a left-sided text now centered, in the tone of a rhetorical response to all that has come before:

 

Rise up holy, in corsets arched

to the sun-struck heavens

 

This curious invocation leads into a long & complex image that slides finally into what can be read – at least on one level – as a final admonition

 

            to stay still

for awhile longer.

 

It’s a complex & ambivalent (multivalent, in fact) moment at the end of a complex & at least equally ambi-/multi- valent text.

 

LGP is contextualized even further in that the elements mentioned in the title – lead, glass, and poppy, a curious trio – are those used by Anselm Kiefer in his Angel of History sculpture** at the National Gallery in Washington, as well as in several other of his pieces from that same period. Beyond the footnoted title, Prevallet brings neither the sculpture nor the sculpture fully into play in the piece & barely references Kiefer’s source, Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Rather, they seem to sit peripherally around the text, rather than either illuminating  or being illuminated by it. In this sense, they’re only one step closer than the image on the cover of the chapbook, a medieval study of the motion of sunspots, or the frontispiece image, a giant sphere hovering over Paris. This I think is an inherent risk in attempting to incorporate so many different elements into what is, after all, a seven page poem loaded with superstructure.

 

Emulation Etudes is ostensibly a simpler book, just four poems, each written to some degree “in the manner of” a master – Dodie Bellamy; Robert Creeley & Francesco Clemente; Samuel Beckett; & Wallace Stevens. Roped together in this fashion, what invariably is foregrounded is how much each can be read as a fundamentally philosophical writer*** The very same forces of “destruction, fire, abandonment, loss” that Prevallet characterizes Kiefer’s “canvas fields” as “burnt with the dark colors of,” show again, from “Hideous bedroom combustion,” in “Love Poem, Untitled (after Dodie Bellamy)” – one of the most self-consciously unattractive sexual metaphors ever – to the description of

 

           my mother

dead, carried

out of the house wrapped

in a sheet

 

in “Rises (after Robert Creeley and Francesco Clemente),” to the absolute stasis & disconnection between the man & woman figured in the story “after Samuel Beckett” to, in the final poem, the metaphor of a wig, cancer’s anointed fashion accessory,

 

               propped atop a building.

With its windows covered,

the birds cannot wake up.

 

Kristin Prevallet is one poet unafraid to look at the dark side. One result, the main one for me, is that all her poetry provokes me, makes me think, leaves me wandering lost in contemplation, reassessing her world & mine, not so terribly unlike Jennifer Moxley. In that sense, these aren’t “likeable” or “fun” poems – they’re trying to go so very much further than that – which I suspect means that Prevallet’s audience is one that will be built up over time by individuals who make an effort. If poetry is, as Charles Bernstein has suggested, the active function of philosophy, Kristin Prevallet is one of the deepest, clearest thinkers we have.

 

 

 

 

* With the lone notable exception of misspelling Kiefer’s surname twice.

 

** Gerhard Richter’s review of this portion of Kiefer’s career is worth reading. You will find it starting on page 5 of the PDF file.

 

*** One might make the same claim for Clemente’s painting.



Sunday, May 11, 2003

 

Some quick thoughts.

 

Flood Editions is going to be publishing the first full-length book by Graham Foust later this summer, As in Every Deafness. Also new books by Lisa Jarnot & John Taggart. With new books out from Robert Duncan & William Fuller, Flood is on a roll.

 

Two blogs new to me worth mentioning:

 

Chris Sullivan’s Slight Publications is a blog from a photographer with an eye toward the unusual, to say the least, often also the linguistic. Chris is also the editor / publisher / bricoleur behind the extremely unusual zine, Journal of Public Domain.

 

A good theory blog that I picked up from Heriberto Yepez’ blogroll is Ernesto Priego’s Never Neutral.

 

& if you look up bricoleur on Google, one the first sites you will be directed to is Bob the Builder. Must be a metalink somewhere, but can I explain it?

 

Finally, just to note last Monday saw 328 visits to this blog, the most ever for a single day. Gracias.



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