Thursday, August 07, 2003

 

Ronald Johnson's final work The Shrubberies is a text of exceptional concision very much in the vein of Louis Zukofsky's parallel text 80 Flowers. One could make a convincing case for Johnson as a major poet on this volume alone, were it not for all the other wonderful works he has left us.

 

The central pleasure in reading The Shrubberies comes from watching a master of condensare at the height of his powers:

 

slant

rain

drops

from

each

prickle

of holly

 

Simple as this seems, this poem hinges on the move from the single syllable words of the first five lines to the tactile transformation of “prickle.” Thus it would have been a completely different poem — and very much a lesser one — to have put “of” on its own line, whereas here, as the first of three soft syllables, it lends the poem's last line exactly the flourish it needs.

 

Similarly, “Two Seasons,” one of the relatively few poems to have a title, is a marvel of the sensuousness of language, the tone leading of vowels in consort with the physicality of consonants:

 

cardinal and bluejay

interloping same bush

shaking forsythia

in goldened shower

 

eternal summers

wren wrench song

on risen bough

after recent rain

 

There is almost no occasion in which the hand-crafted descriptor “goldened” is going to sound anything less than silly, but Johnson has found the perfect instance here. And The Shrubberies is filled with such occasions.

 

Johnson was exceptionally fortunate to have discovered Peter O'Leary, now his literary executor, and whose work here as editor has given us the most sustained volume Johnson would ever produce. Would that Robert Duncan or even Zukofsky shared such fortune.

 

O'Leary's afterword is remarkably straightforward in its account of the editing. Johnson explicitly instructed O'Leary to “prune the shrubs” of a “great shaggy manuscript,” and prune he has. The result, to follow this analogy out, is closer to the topiary of the Longwood Gardens of the Duponts than, say, to the bramble-ridden overgrowth of Olson's Dogtown in Gloucester. The original manuscript consisted “of 229 pages and perhaps 300 poems.” As published, the volume consists of 124 poems over 126 pages, really a radical distillation the implications of which I will come back to in a moment.

 

Johnson, according to Leary, appears to have considered two schemes for the organization of the volume, one a record of the seasons, the other a characteristically Johnsonian tour of an imagined ideal garden. Yet there are poems here —

 

on the screen

the primal scene

a scream of out

 

that absolutely fall outside of either strategy. To complicate matters, Johnson himself never settled on a final strategy and appears to have been inconsistent in his marginal notations regarding placement of individual poems. All of this is, however, completely consistent with the Ronald Johnson I knew in San Francisco over twenty years, a man of brilliant gifts who at moments appeared to be utterly lacking in judgment. And, indeed, even in these short pieces that are so tightly condensed, there are pieces that just scream for a further edit:

 

beyond, a Province of wheat

and streams to grind the grain

fields framed by scarlet poppies

and bluest bachelor-buttons

and borderline to the stars

 

I want to strike that final “and” with the thickest red pen I have as well as to question the en dash in the penultimate line. Also I would strike that upper-case P. And it all makes me wonder — if this poem gets into the final selection of 124 pieces, what exactly did O'Leary leave out?

 

And that, I think, will be the final drama of this work, the simple knowledge that there exist perhaps 175 additional poems not included here. I would not be surprised to see a cottage industry of sorts spring up to get some or all of these works out into journals & webzines over the next few years. Perhaps someday FSG books will decide to issue the Complete Poems of a good poet (or Flood Editions, which has become the most responsible publisher for all things Projectivist [which is how you might describe Johnson were he not so visibly influenced by Zukofsky], or perhaps even Talisman House) will issue the Complete Ronald Johnson, and thus will give us the “great shaggy manuscript.” Until then, this diamond hard concentration will represent the final sweep of one of the great lives of poetry of our time.



Wednesday, August 06, 2003

 

Harold

dying

sleeps

sleep

 

*

 

Susan

daughter

of Harold

teaches

 

Robert Grenier was good enough the other day to give me a tour of his current hand-crafted poetry, of which the two above pieces stuck with me so deeply that I woke the next morning as though dreaming their words. But words, as anyone who has read Grenier's "scrawl" works in recent years will realize, represent just a fraction of what is going on in these poems.

 

Each of the two above pieces (typed here entirely from memory a day later) is hand-drawn over two pages in a hardback sketchbook the size of a trade paperback, each word printed out in Grenier's curiously inscrutable block letters in a different color. The first three lines of each piece are heavily overlapped, with the last one somewhat freer. One doesn't so much read these poems as one does fathom them — it takes a few minutes literally to recognize what exactly is being said.

 

This is not, I think, accidental. It puts the reader into the position of getting to each word slowly & as if a discovery, a process that more or less mimics Grenier's own act of writing. Typing them, as I do here, does these works no justice whatsoever. Although, doing so, I come to realize that what enables me to remember them is the power – the emotional power – of the long “e” toward which each piece flows.

 

The sketchbook & these hand-drawn works represent a one-of-a-kind technology that I associate with the visual arts, not with publishing, and Grenier did have a show recently at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. Yet clearly these are poems, even if of a genus with which we are not yet familiar. It is the sort of work that might someday require a retrospective in a museum, but is less likely to yield a Collected Poems.

 

Grenier's attention to the world around him — there were pieces in this sequence about the wind, on the beach & above the eucalyptus trees in Bolinas, that I wish now I'd remembered more adequately — is very close to my own writing process & Grenier unquestionably has been one of the largest influences on my poetry. His is perhaps the most private writing in the world, yet if there is anyone anywhere who is writing more intelligently or intensely, I've not seen the work.



Tuesday, August 05, 2003

 

There is a poem in Barbara Guest's slender new book Miniatures and Other Poems — at 45 pages, it's almost more of a chapbook in spite of the perfect binding — that, if it isn't her finest poem ever (a distinct possibility), at least for me illuminates her writing as nothing heretofore has done. "Pathos" shines.

 

Like much of Guest's poetry, "Pathos" both does & does not "tell a story." It begins with a distinct narrative image, that of an ice skater:

 

Arms flutter close to the body, skating on pure ice, harmonious

composition, —

 

Quickly enough, the skater is gendered — "Lithe her romp!" — as the central action of the early narrative occurs: "She is falling!" But from this moment forward, the poem moves outward, both in terms of imagery & action — but in terms of idea & theme as well. The skater's precarious process around the rink is equated with word & alphabet, one's way in the world altogether:

 

Something she must know about hazard, what spills out —

 

disturbance, — pathos.

 

Equilibrium never fixed —

 

That last line is the closest approximation I've ever seen to Guest's own writing process. She is very careful as to when & how the poem might share any sort of pause or rest, the inherent balance enabling all tumbling thoughts finally to complete themselves, and she doles such moments out very sparingly. Reading her work, as here, is perpetually a process of trying to get one's bearings.

 

Guest is certainly not the first poet to utilize the reader's sense of balance to good effect — Charles Olson & Larry Eigner both come immediately to mind. Yet both of these men offer far more opportunities in the midst of their texts for the reader literally to orient themselves than does Guest. In "Pathos," these moments occur early, as part of the set up of the piece, not as any offering — even temporarily — of closure. 

 

Indeed, this is why, I think, Guest often combines punctuation here, the comma with the dash, where any style guide would tell the normative writer that only the latter is needed. Guest wants the reader to feel both pulls away from the word.

 

Guest continues this process, as close as she may ever get to manifesto or exegesis in her poetry directly, in "Blurred Edge," the second long poem in this otherwise short book, even as she declares

 

    no exegesis

no barnyard door.

 

"Blurred Edge," with its unstated thesis that in an interactive world there can be no hard demarcations, would be interesting to read alongside Nick Piombino's The Boundary of Blur. In it, Guest counters — I don't want to say "balances" — the lurching gyroscope of "Pathos," and forces me to confront her equation of imbalance with an emotion, literally (but not at all in the commonplace sense of the term) pathetic.



Monday, August 04, 2003

 

Jack Kerouac, Kathy Acker, Douglas Woolf, Bill Burroughs & Samuel R. Delany have all been characterized, with reason, poets' novelists. This is to say that their works are written in the context & milieu of poetry, employ more than a few of poetry’s devices & are read attentively by poets. If there exists an equivalent of this phenomenon in painting, it can be found in the work of Philip Guston (1913-1980), visible in a glorious retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until the end of September, going then to the Met & eventually to London.

 

I almost didn't purchase the catalog to the show — Guston's paintings seriously resist being captured in two-dimensional reproductions, a work like The Painter (1976) is nothing like what you see in the book, even tho the photograph is as "true" as a photograph can be. Guston's brushstrokes — never long save in the background — have an energy, almost an angst, that comes out of his roots in abstract expressionism & which never really goes away when in the 1960s he suddenly seems to add a curious iconography of comics-inspired figures — klansmen, cigars, pointing fingers, shoes, one-eyed (and otherwise featureless) faces.

 

The crisp photography of a catalog doesn't capture the worked, active surfaces of Guston's work in oils & the absolute brightness of crisp, glossy art book paper makes Guston's colors seem considerably different from their consciously muddied tones. One almost thinks that this is a catalog that should have been printed on matte stock. Guston's White Painting I (1951), for example, must be the darkest work ever given such a title, but only the foreground captures this aspect in the book.

 

Books. Hardly any painter of his time had a more active role with regards to writing than Guston. The volume includes a wonderful essay by Bill Berkson on Guston & the comics, from Krazy Kat to R. Crumb — an absolute "must read" if you're Gary Sullivan or Dave Morice — as well as a far less illuminating piece on "Guston as a reader" by Dore Ashton that at least acknowledges Guston's friendships with Berkson, Bill Corbett & Clark Coolidge.

 

What took me most by surprise, circling multiple times through the fourth floor show at SF MOMA, was not simply the early work — the Ben Shahn-esque social expressionism of the 1930s or the somber illustrations from WW2 when the school at which Guston had been teaching — Iowa City! — was turned overnight into a Naval Air Training facility, but the strokes — from his abstract expressionist period onward, Philip Guston, early & late, was a painter of strokes. The strokes widen & narrow over periods, and become softer in his late figurative work generally, but never recede entirely. They're mostly short, as if the stroke indicated one span of attention (thus the shortest are the most intense & the relatively few long ones that do appear are given almost always to the background). The physicality of these strokes simply doesn’t translate well in reproduction & yet at the museum these strokes struck me, even more than the images, as Guston’s primary conveyor of emotion.

 

Watching Guston's evolution, from the didactic paintings into abstraction — the exhibit makes a convincing argument for Guston as an abstract expressionist of the first rank — and then back to a new mode of figuration is the inevitable narrative here, and it's fascinating to watch the tale unfold. Figures appear during the AE period of Guston's work out of his treatment of the foreground. Indeed, Guston distinguishes between foreground & back to a far greater degree than almost any abstractionist of that period, his foregrounds given lots of room in the center of the painting, until, circa 1960, a series of dark shapes, gray into black, almost clots of strokes, more rectangular than anything else, begin to form. There is an ink-on-paper piece from 1966 called Full Brush that shows Guston clearly thinking of this form as a figure. It appears amidst a series that are trying out straight lines, right angles, even the outline of a cartoon head.

 

Much has been made of Guston's iconography — I would point you to Berkson's piece in the catalog & Corbett's writing on Guston (none of which is included here, which seems bizarre enough until Ashton goes an extra distance to slight Corbett's relation to Guston — "who became Guston's friend only during the last eight years" — at which point a yawning backstory of retrospective & catalog politics seems to peek thru) for the best common sense writing on his work.

 

But most of all I would encourage you to see the show. As useful as the catalog is, once you have done so, Philip Guston is an almost textbook example of the painter who doesn't reproduce in two dimensions.



Sunday, August 03, 2003

 

David Hess & Jim Behrle claim that I should have taken my boys to the zoo rather than to have carried all those books to California. In fact, I tried to do just that. On our second Thursday out west, we started out in Pescadero (along the coast north of Santa Cruz), headed over the hills through La Honda (home of the Merry Pranksters) to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. After a tour of some 110 rooms (out of the 160 total), we drove north to SF to have dinner with Michael & Pam Rosenthal. However, getting up to the City a couple of hours before we were due, Krishna & I thought to take the kids to the zoo. Colin & Jesse were having none of it. We suggested a trip to the Cliff House, to the windmill in Golden Gate Park, to the buffalo herd in that same park. No go. By this time, the kids were decompensating from a long day of tourism, so there was nothing left to do – we took them where they wanted to go, Green Apple Books.



Saturday, August 02, 2003

 

Books & literary journals that came for me while I was away in California:

 

Anthology

§         Writing to be Seen: An Anthology of Later 20th Century Visio-Textual Art, edited by Bob Grumman and Crag Hill, Light and Dust

 

Books & Chapbooks

§         Spring’s Grave: Le Tombeau du Printemps, Chantal Bizzini, translated by Brad Anderson, Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, No. 77

§         Hamburger, Steve Carll, Tinfish

§         Three Vietnamese Poets, translated by Linh Dinh, Tinfish*

§         Everwhat, Clayton Eshleman, Zasterle

§         ode ode, Michael Farrell, Salt

§         A Cornelia Street Reading, Cliff Fyman, privately published

§         “Fusion,” Jeffrey Jullich, privately published+

§         Hochma and Bina Give Birth,” Jeffrey Jullich, privately published+

§         Sista Tongue, Lisa Linn Kanae, Tinfish

§         Clutch: Hockey Love Letters, Sawako Nakayasu, Tinfish

§         Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture, Lee A. Tonouchi, Tinfish

§         Addenda (For August 15th, Sotère Torregian, Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, No. 76

§         The False Sun Recordings, James Wagner, 3rd Bed

 

Journals

§         Filling Station 027, edited by Natalie Simpson et al.

§         Special Offer 12, edited by Susan M. Schultz, Tinfish

 

 

* = a book I already own

 

+ = these simple manuscripts don’t really have titles,
but are identified by those of their first poems



Friday, August 01, 2003

 

At 21 Grand, I characterized VOG as being a section of The Alphabet unlike any other in that it was itself "a book of ordinary poems." This generated some speculation amid the bloggers present, so maybe I should unpack that a little, spell out what I was thinking.

 

Principally that the poems are discrete. They are relatively short & have beginnings, middles & ends. They have enough internal integrity to have their own titles: "Dogs Love Trucks," "Dadaquest," "Spiderduck." Indeed, the one task that remains with VOG is for me to go through the manuscript and edit it down to a final version. This will certainly mean deleting some pieces, and may mean (I'm far less certain of this) reordering the final suite.

 

When I look at The Alphabet as a whole, I'm struck with what a small proportion of the overall text is given over to beginnings or ends. In so many ways, the work itself is a monument to the middle, to being "in" the poem as if there were no outside or other. More than any other section, VOG seems to me to address the problematics of that.

 

I also note that, although I used virtually the same words to describe the project before my reading at the Drawing Center in New York in June, again before an audience notably filled with bloggers, the concept of this characterization — "ordinary poems" — was not commented upon. Does this indicate anything about the two communities, either as poets or as bloggers? Is the idea "ordinary poem" NOT problematic in NYC? Are the bloggers of the Bay Area inherently more attuned to the theoretical? And does blogging play a different role in SF than in NYC (SF in this instance starting just north of the Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, extending up somewhere into the wine country). Is it more constitutive of one community than of the other?

 

I'm reading books by Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, John Godfrey & Jordan Davis on my trip & there is no way I would try to generalize that into "one thing," the new new New York School, any more than I would attempt the same with the authors whose books I'm reading from the Bay Area on this trip: Lyn Hejinian, Barbara Guest, Clark Coolidge, Stephen Ratcliffe or Eileen Tabios. The coherence of communities is not, of itself, aesthetic. I might as well link the work of Aloysius Bertrand, Robert Duncan, Ron Johnson & Dan Davidson into a Poetics of the Dead.



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