Saturday, September 27, 2003

 

Blogging is both incestuous & serendipitous. Chris Murray commented upon my own remarks concerning genre in response to my forthcoming appearance in Double Room. She also assigned a work from Double Room to what I think must be her advanced exposition class at the University of Texas – Arlington, Anthony Tognazzini’s “I’d Heard She Had a Deconstructive Personality.” Obviously I had to read that – as in fact you should also. Click over there, but come right back.

 

Tognazzini’s work is a lot of fun. Just 25 sentences (or sentence fragments) long, not including that title (which certainly can be read as a first sentence to the piece), it does a deft job of setting up a frame of reference – an unnamed female – then providing a good deal of detail that suggests both the course of a relationship & layers of identity that are only partly peeled away during the course of the text. In general – as Murray’s students saw right away – Tognazzini uses the exceptionally short fragments of the opening line to set up the pacing of the work: rapid, open to radical shifts, yet inherently “coherent” because so many of the cognitive frames appear to identify a female. Thirteen of the sentences, a majority, actually use either she or her – fourteen, if you include the title.

 

When you think about the absolute dominance of those pronouns, it is evident that this is a work predominantly of/about character. The reality, of course, is that it’s at least theoretically conceivable that Tognazzini came upon these exact sentences in some procedural manner, such as taking sentences involving those sentences off the internet and building the piece (& the person) around that, a variant of the flarf device of Google sculpting. If you read Tognazzini’s comments in Double Room, it seems likely that he envisions this as fiction, albeit precisely of that “flash fiction” mode that descends from the soft surrealists of the Sixties (Tate, Knott, Simic, etc.).

 

This reminds me of not one, but two works that I wrote in the early 1970s, roughly as I was getting ready (& starting) to write Ketjak. One, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps, was a short (for me) prose poem. It was originally published in chapbook format by Tuumba Press & I was stunned to discover that it had been awarded a Pushcart Prize for (drumroll here) fiction.* Nothing about the piece was in any way fictive. It had neither character, nor plot, nor even verbs. It was, in fact, a long paragraph entirely composed of sentence fragments. But I was now a fiction writer, award winning even, and was hired as such as a visiting lecturer by UCSD in 1982 (I had to insist that I be allowed to teach a poetry course, which the then chairman of literature program thought rather curious).

 

The other was a work that I wrote about one year earlier in which I was trying to construct character from pronouns, specifically the first-person singular. This work, “Berkeley,” first appeared in This 5 and was later reprinted in Michael Lally’s anthology, None of the Above. Here is that work:

 

                         I thought you might be here

                I was alone and it was almost two

                                 I have enjoyed my lunch

             I knew right away I made a mistake

                   I glanced back once

                            I mean it

                               I thought so

                I had been actually invited

                      I drew my jacket sleeve across my wet mouth

                                   I wasn't even trying

                                      I told him

                  I'll try to let you know

            I watched some piano lessons

               I was a very tough cookie

  I laughed

      I thought I'd tell you

               I haven't hurt him

   I should be too vulgar

         I know where I am

                  I do decline to be left

      I haven't had the time

I'm going to find out about you

               I never thought of that

                     I better have some of that wine

                                  I'm serious

                            I hope so

                               I'm red and brown

                   I would take you to a balcony

                        I swear it

                                 I know who you are

              I knew there was something and opened the window

                I went on up and unlocked the door

          I went out and shut the door

    I put the lamps out and sat by an open window

             I sat down and looked at him

       I sat down and took one of the cigarettes

    I stepped inside the office and picked up the mail

                       I worked there

                    I see

                       I changed my mind

                I just feel that way

                          I want to be sick

             I never said anything

                             I like this rug

                                 I fuck too

                       I am, a stride at a time

                          I came through the museum

                 I was not afraid

                    I could not save her

          I fell asleep on the sand

              I have reasons

               I'm not thinking yet

                    I don't care for the idea

   I shake your hand and even embrace you

      I've been wondering something else

I wish I could have missed this

         I think she needs more time

                  I think we never used the word

                        I do

                           I know

                     I'll meet that

             I knew no one in the place

                  I don't play well

          I'm always willing

                I have to go soon

                      I put out my hand

                               I believe it did

                            I am glad you are at home

        I asked him what might be his immediate purpose

           I'd like to know the reasons

                  I could hear the many voices now

    I'll tell you God's truth

               I don't go at all any more

                         I look behind me

  I care not to perform this part of my task methodically

         I survived myself

                I'll try the bench here

             I don't see how I can help you

     I detest it

        I want to see which side will grow best

  I want to redeem myself

     I can shoot you

  I've no idea really

     I should say it is not a mask

        I must remember another time

              I don't want to know you

           I'm not dressed

  I had to take the risk

     I did look

  I don't care what you make of it

        I am outside in the sun

                    I still had what was mine

              I will stay here and die

           I was reinforced in this opinion

    I flushed it down the toilet

                 I collapsed into my chair

                            I could go home still

                      I forgot the place, sir

         I close my eyes so as not to see those apes

  I said that it was all scattered

     I met him through some friends

             I saw the object itself

                I left them

                       I thought you were different

           I want not to have failed to say it

                       I began to beat the horse

      I will never find happiness

I will not repair the hole in the window

                 I wish you at least a pleasant day

       I don't say that it's me particularly

          I knew now why her face was familiar

               I play a little at it

           I've rung them three times

  I stood on my own two feet

I will see him there

       I begin to recognize where I am

                 I will tell you

     I protest my innocence of these things

           I only heard by accident

      I tell you all women are dead

I could hardly believe my own eyes

                   I could find nothing to say

   I undertook to deliver the letters and the box

            I would do the same

         I'm going back with you

                  I shall keep this spot in sight

            I can only speak for myself

                         I was impatient

               I squeaked for joy

                     I agree with that

                        I close my eyes and think it over

                                       I stick to dealing

                 I've had it a long time without selling it

                              I walked out the back way

                        I don't intend to do anything

          I ain't leaving this machine

             I liked her all right

    I should like him to have a friend

       I'm only speaking the truth

I am going around the corner

               I ask you

        I just don't want to eat, I answer 

  I didn't answer

             I m sorry, he said

     I forgot to notice what brand it was

               I see, the professor said

I tackled him this morning on belief 

   I'm afraid I am

         I came to fetch him from his room in the morning 

              I do not know about others 

     I am shivering

           I open the door

  I wouldn't have wanted to try that myself

        I got up and followed her into the study

I went out, walked a few steps to the front door

      I wonder did he ever put it out of sight

  I laughed but it was not a gay sort of laughter

              I can see the picture

I'm tired and I want to stop this mumbling

                  I won't stand for this

    I'm unpopular everywhere because they expected you

         I was a guide

               I wasn't speaking to you

                     I think you've got enough to do already

 

We didn’t have Google sculpting in my youth, but this piece proceeds by a kind of antecedent, just picking up books that were literally lying around, appropriating “I” statements – there’s Malraux, Mailer, Dickens, Stein & Creeley** tucked in there in various places – yet it seems to me that the work does indeed “construct a voice.” At what level is it (or is it not) mine?

 

Tognazzini’s piece doesn’t succeed for me quite as well as it seems to for Murray & her students. Tognazzini’s ability to articulate two positions within a relationship – more or less “I” & “her” – is well done, but that long sentence beginning “Her fingers hang…” strikes me as just too clunky in a work as short as this one. And, in general, this is a prose ear at work, more comfortable with the prosody of fiction than poetry.

 

But what works best for him are the open-ended, indeterminate elements. “Poppies exploding, smoke.” The risk in such language when attached to a pronoun – “Her head an eraser…Her secret self an igloo” – is that these verbal gestures can telescope down into a psychology of stereotypical tropes. Her head an eraser? Still, I don’t think this is where Tognazzini is going with this. I think it’s only incidentally about a female & much more about the construction of positions & relations. The use of figurative language represents, even if it doesn’t always achieve, an opacity that is not that unlike the opacity of others, even our most intimate others, in real life.

 

 

 

* Bill Henderson removed the label “fiction” from the paperback edition at my request.

 

** It was, in fact, something of Creeley’s – I’m tired and I want to stop this mumbling – spoken in the middle of an interview, that set this piece in motion, even though it’s one of the final lines in the work. I spent much of the writing, as I recall, trying to arrive at a point where I thought it made sense to enter that into the text.



Friday, September 26, 2003

 

 

Edward Said

 

1935-2003

 



 

I want to take a closer look at some of the writing that appears in Another South. I’ve been mulling over Hank Lazer’s definition of kudzu textuality – “rich, generative, polyvocal, over-determined, hybrid” – with his characterization of it a little later as a kind of “hypertextuality.” What I take from this definition are the works in the book that mix media, typefaces, incorporate imagery & the like. In general, the strongest pieces in Another South tend to fall furthest from that sort of thing, including the writing of Lorenzo Thomas, Thomas Meyer & Lazer’s own – probably the most widely known authors here – but also that of Skip Fox, Brett Evans, Joel Dailey, Dana Lisa Lustig, Mark Prejsnar, Kalamu ya Salaam or Jerry McGuire.

 

But the two writers who do the most to seal my sense that kudzu textuality is more problematic than not are Bob Grumman & David Thomas Roberts. Each includes some straightforward visual poetry in their contributions. Each also includes straightforward text works. But in both instances, these works are distinct, each “media” or “genre” focused on its own dynamics. Their visual works in particular are some of the strongest pieces of any mode in the anthology.

 

Which makes me realize that the mixed-media poems that Hank is characterizing as kudzu textuality are about something very different. It’s not just that some of these writers use extra-verbal devices, but rather it’s the process of combining media that is both the signature feature of kudzu poetics & its fatal flaw. Whereas all single-media works to one degree or another build around a sense of focus, creating focus, guiding it through the text or image, shaping it almost as if it were a plastic medium like play, kudzu works go in just the opposite direction, as if the work were constantly distracted, shifting gears (or, more accurately, grinding them). My sense in almost all of the truly kudzu pieces here is that they dissipate whatever possible energy their media – especially the writing – might have had.

 

For the second time in one week, this raises for me the specter of Max Jacob. It was Jacob who argued – wrongly I think – that the purpose of art was to distract. I flat out think just the opposite. It’s all about concentration. Maybe this is just a discussion of which pharmaceuticals I tended to favor in the 1960s, but I think not – an art that doesn’t heighten the awareness of the person confronted with it (as reader, viewer, listener, inhabitant, etc., as well as producer) strikes me as completely pointless & less than interesting. An art that disaggregates attention, dispersing it in divergent directions, seems destined for irrelevance. This is not to say that there is only one way for an artist to be effective – I think, for example, one can take the path of Brecht or that of Artaud – but woe unto the artist who cannot make up his/her mind as to which path to take.

 

In this sense, kudzu strikes me as deep weeds indeed. A case in point being Jake Berry’s excerpt from the third volume of his ongoing longpoem Brambu Drezi, the first lines of which read:

 

In the clutch of blind embryo

              madness is a tongue robbing death

             in the matted black hair of darkness –

 

That’s about as dense a cluster of overwriting & cliché as I’ve come across in a long time. I wish that I could report that it was atypical or satiric in its intent*, but if the latter were true, Berry has failed to leave any clues with which to anchor the reading. Rather, this style is just one of several toward which Berry’s writing tends in this long verse gumbo he’s been composing for some years now. Not all of them are this obnoxious or off-putting, but dressing them up with periodic drawings does nothing to enrich the experience. Berry himself describes a writing process that is not unlike Spicerian dictation: “BRAMBU . . . is not projected but merely occurs – I don’t drive it or shape it, I allow it.” If ever there were an argument for driving instruction, this would be it.

 

It’s in this sense that I think that Another South uses that adjective in its subtitle Experimental Writing in the South** way too uncritically. This would seem to be experimental in the sense of an author tooling down the road at 70 MPH with eyes closed & no hands on the steering wheel – it’s sort of ready fodder for the likes of a Joan Houlihan. How contrast this against the likes of a poem like “Flash Point”:

 

This useless clairvoyance

Is embarrassing

What good is it to know

The motives behind manners

 

And worse, the so what stares

Of those upon whom you manage

To inflict this wisdom

 

There is more space

Awaiting exploration

More clouds of gas

That need their picture took

 

Lorenzo Thomas has more going on in eleven lines than Berry does in seven pages. Think for a moment of the frame set up by the terms useless & embarrassing in the first two lines & how each reacts off a term such as clairvoyance. Then think back to madness is a tongue robbing death. The most generous possible reading of that latter line is one-dimensional to the point of being flatline.

 

I have taken to using the phrase post-avant where editor Bill Lavender employs experimental not only because the neo-scientific frame of the latter is at this moment in history comedic at best – think of the late jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie wandering around a stage in his “mad scientist” lab coat – but also because post-avant acknowledges the 200-year-old tradition in which contemporary writing exists while also acknowledging that frames like avant-garde or experimental are not only dated, but misleading. It is in this sense that a deeper limitation to Another South is that generally there is no experimental writing in it, nothing that isn’t in some sense a recombination of trends already going on elsewhere within writing. Some is much better than usual, as in the case of Thomas’ poetry above, and some of it is not. And in this collection at least much of what is not is kudzu.

 

 

 

 

* The way it would be had, say, a Bruce Andrews or Charles Bernstein penned those very same lines.

 

** The use of the word South twice in the title suggests that the book’s name hasn’t been given very much thought. Similarly, the volume proceeds alphabetically – the default, no-value mode of editing. One possible version would have been to divide the volume into three sections: New Orleans, Atlanta and Other. A fourth section might have been composed of those, like McGuire and Lazer, who teach for a living. Even proceeding by year of birth would have offered more information & shape to a reader.



Thursday, September 25, 2003

 

I’ve noted before that one of my favorite experiences as a poet was the opportunity to give a reading in the Composers’ Union Hall in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia, with Ivan Zhdanov. Zhdanov, only two years my junior, was born & raised in Siberia, although much of his adult life has been spent in Moscow. We come from radically different social & historical contexts, yet find ourselves not so terribly far apart in how we have chosen to live our lives. Contemplating the parallels (& the divergences) is one of those lovely mind-bending processes with which I’ve been known to wile away an afternoon.

 

To my generation, of course, Siberia is not merely a geographic region in the eastern portion of Russia, but represents much more. Synonymous with Stalin’s gulag, the name connotes a region so distant & forbidding that simply to be sent there proved an irrevocable mode of exile.

 

Yet Russia & the United States are also countries with more than a few similarities. During the Cold War, they were the two so-called Super Powers. Each has a heritage with important roots in European culture &, at the same time, feels a deep ambivalence about that heritage. Each nation is a diverse society, a fact about which each has also expressed more than a few ambivalences. Our “melting pot” mythology may have employed different tropes than their “Socialist Man,” but the deeper reality was that each was intended to construct a post-multicultural world that would pave over what in both instances was often a brutal history of inconsistencies.

 

I’ve been thinking about Zhdanov & Siberia, because on my desk is sitting the anthology Another South: Experimental Writing in the South, edited by Bill Lavender, recently published by the University of Alabama Press. It was John High, poet & one-time editor of Five Fingers Review, who explained to me that it was his own Southern heritage that had first attracted him to Russian writing & translation.* “We both understand failed civilizations,” were John’s more or less exact words, equating the collapse of Czarist Russia – this was before the later collapse of the Soviet one – with the South’s defeat in the Civil War.

 

That’s only one of several frames that one might apply to this collection of 34 post-avant poets. But, as with virtually all of the other potential master narratives, this one is complicated & problematic. A substantial number of these writers – Hank Lazer, Lorenzo Thomas, Mark Prejsnar, Joel Dailey, Thomas Meyer & Dana Lisa Lustig – did not grow up in the South & have no organic sense of having been raised within that framework, or even in its echo, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s & ‘60s. Further, over half live in exactly two metropolitan areas – New Orleans & Atlanta – suggesting that the South is just as scene-centric as the rest of the nation. & suggesting that the “agrarian” framework has little to do with what this volume rather unabashedly calls “Experimental” writing.**

 

One of the half-hidden presumptions of any regional anthology, of course, is that, by their remove from “major” literary centers, the poets involved do not receive their fair share of recognition. Yet many of the writers here will be known to readers of this blog – Lazer, Thomas, Lustig, Prejsnar, Meyer, Bob Grumman, Skip Fox, Jim Leftwich, )ohn Lowther, Jake Berry, Randy Prunty & Skip Fox all publish widely. Perhaps it is partly the geography-erasing features of the Internet, but it is also true that the South of today is as urban, metropolitan & connected as any part of the nation – and more so than some. From the perspective of literary access, if no other, would you rather be a poet living in the Dakotas or Atlanta?

 

Is it possible thus to use this book as a means to identify a “regional” style? Hank Lazer makes a case for what he calls kudzu textuality, which he characterizes as a “rich, generative, polyvocal, over-determined, hybrid kind of textuality.” That does seem pretty accurate as a description of about half of the writing in the book, where one finds constructed languages alongside vizpo elements very much in a palimpsest. But that seems to me less a function of new Southern writing than it does of Bill Lavender’s inclinations as an editor. If one adds such poets as Dale Smith, Bobby Byrd, Hoa Nguyen, Jonathan Williams, Mark Scroggins, David McAleavey, or any of the other writers who would qualify with just the slightest aesthetic &/or geographic expansion of the volume’s horizon, you would get a fairly different book. That, too, would be Another South.

 

 

 

* Indeed, the one book of John High’s on my bookshelf is a 1993 volume published in Moscow & translated by the late Nina Iskrenko.

 

** The state with the largest number of rural residents is actually Pennsylvania.



Wednesday, September 24, 2003

 

Setting down Paul Blackburn’s The Journals, I picked up literally the nearest book, wherein I read the following piece, entitled “intro” to a longer sequence – there are two other parts, both in three-line stanzas – called “Trilogy”:

 

monday night i went to the san francisco art institute to see nathaniel dorsky’s silent film trilogy, which consists of triste, variations, and arbor vitae.  packed house.  clark coolidge sat right in front of me.  bill berkson, who’d told me this was a must-not-miss event, did the welcome introductions.  nathaniel dorsky explained that, though folks like to call this set of films a “trilogy,” they are really just variations on a theme, with the inherent differences brought on by the fact that he was a different person when he made each film (the first one was apparently shot in the 70s/80s, the second in the later 80s, the third in the 90s).  the first 2 films were beautiful.  about 5 minutes into the 3rd and newest film, the projector bulb “burned a hole” into the film – an abrupt stop.  a 2nd attempt was made – film mended, rethreaded & started from the beginning.  only a few frames after the spot where the film broke the first time, it burned/broke again.  i didn’t wait to see if a 3rd attempt was made.  the first two films were beautiful.  the day before which was sunday it was seventy degrees.  i went for a walk through golden gate park.  and sat down in the shakespeare garden until dusk.

 

I immediately had two distinct, almost contradictory, reactions. The first was that this piece offers some of the specificity whose absence I’d been mourning in the abstract after being almost overwhelmed by its presence in Blackburn’s “Ritual.” The second was an ambivalence as to whether or not the author, Del Ray Cross, even intended it as a poem.

 

There is only one other work that uses prose in Cinema Yosemitetry saying that title fast three times – suggesting that I should be suspicious about too rapidly categorizing this text as poem, particularly given the distancing title of “intro” – as if to say, this stands apart from the “real” body. Yet without it, the poems of ”Trilogy” only number two. Further, this is a text explicitly about the showing of a “trilogy” of films, yet in which only two are seen. Both of the other poems allude to events recounted here, although as poems neither could be said to depend on such knowledge. Further, there is a leap at the end of this piece, literally backwards in time by one day, bringing in the detail of the garden in the park. I end up thinking that this piece is at least as much about the presence of detail as detail, not unlike the ways in which Dorsky’s own films* proceed.

 

Detail is in fact a significant dynamic throughout Cinema Yosemite. Cross, whom I know only as the editor of Shampoo, appears almost compulsive in a desire for exactness, a bias that stands him in well in poems that shift into a more playful gear:

 

The sky’s blue

but lightly buttered.

 

Cross’ line differs radically from Blackburn’s – it shares more surface characteristics with the aforementioned Berkson, Robert Creeley & perhaps Alan Bernheimer or Kit Robinson, all of whom tend toward shorter lines & an impulse toward relatively short stanzas that operate as very complete, even elegant, units. The deep commitment to craft is a pretty good guarantee that Cross’ poems will continue to fascinate & compel readers twenty, thirty years from now.

 

Approaching Cross’ work thus, linking it back to Blackburn’s, may be idiosyncratic to the point of nuttiness on my part, though the test of specificity is a good one for any poet. What really makes Cross’ book leap out for me, tho, is something altogether different. It’s the degree to which the man can write unambiguous love poetry, most notably in the title poem. Talk about lost arts!

 

Cross’ optimism – it’s related, I’m convinced – comes across even in what on the surface professes to be a sad poem, “ll Massimo del Panino”**

 

Have you ever

read a poem

that made you cry

 

sitting in an

Italian restaurant

eating a

 

spinaci e fontina

panino

across from a

 

man with a

mustache drinking

a Diet Coke

 

while another man

walks in, arms-

outstretched shouting

 

to the owner

Donald Trump!

Donald Trump!”

 

and next to you

two tablesful

of students

 

one loudly

letting loose with

“I no playboy!”

 

as the

others spatter

sweet lexical

 

nothings in

German, Italian,

and Japanese?

 

This single-sentence poem is as well crafted & information rich as Blackburn’s, fabulously coy in its refusal to actually name the poem referenced in the first stanza. That anonymous writing functions here very much as the plastic bag blowing back & forth in the street functions in Sam Mendes’ film, American Beauty, an icon of ineffability, an absent center around which Cross layers on detail after detail until it is the intensity of detail itself, not what it says that is in fact “the topic” of this poem, just as, in “RITUAL XVII,” the actual cashing of Blackburn’s check itself is more or less irrelevant. Each piece celebrates plenitude simply for the possibility of it.

 

What seals this particular poem for me is the care with which Cross deploys enjambment here, virtually the signature device for a Projectivist like Blackburn – think of the line recognized me from similar occasions, the. Where for all the Black Mountain poets, enjambment is used almost as an index of indeterminacy, Cross demonstrates with absolute elegance how to do it exactly the opposite way. Three lines break with the article a, a fourth with an, a fifth literally in the middle of a word, two more on prepositions. That’s nearly a fourth of the poem & yet only once does these enjambments occur at a stanza break – Cross is very carefully moving us through lineation as much as syntactic superstructure through the different realms of this sentence. The one exception, at the end of the second stanza, prefigures the movement into Italian in the third as well as calling just enough attention to the device qua device to set up the attentive reader to hear echo again right in the break between the final two stanzas of the poem as the adjectives hang deliberately far from their noun, the key word in the whole poem, nothings.

 

Cinema Yosemite is precisely the kind of book that gives one great hope for the future of poetry. In retrospect, I wonder a little at the serendipity of my picking it up right after the Blackburn until I stop and look a little harder at the cover, an image of actor George Barnes as the bandit from Edwin S. Porter’s silent classic, The Great Train Robbery, an image so closely associated with that first American action film that it once adorned a 32-cent stamp. This photograph, I realize, has more than a passing resemblance to none other than Paul Blackburn.

 

 

 

 

* The very strangest & most atypical of which must be the 1976 epic, Revenge of the Cheerleaders, co-written by Dorsky with Ted Greenwald & the somewhat mysterious Ace Baandage. This softcore flick is remembered today primarily for the film debut of Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, complete with full frontal nudity, in the role, I swear, of “Boner.”

 

** The title is the name of a restaurant next door to the Intituto Italiana di Cultura in San Francisco, on the fringe of the financial district just outside of North Beach.



Tuesday, September 23, 2003

 

On Friday, with the power still out – it came on for five minutes around 9 AM, just long enough for me to get a cup of tea & Krishna a cup of coffee, then didn’t show up again until 1 PM when we were, in fact, heating up chicken cacciatore leftovers on the barbee – there was little I could do in the way of work. Jesse & I took a dawn walk around the neighborhood, to check out downed limbs, fallen trees & see if we would, in fact, be able to leave the neighborhood if we needed to. One oak tree came down a block away just barely missing a house & some limbs had made another street temporarily impassable, but that was about it.

 

So I sat on my front porch & read for awhile & came upon, I swear, the closest thing to a “lunch poem” by Paul Blackburn I can recall ever seeing.

 

RITUAL XVII.   it takes an hour

 

 

Money seems to avoid me in

some mysterious way

 

                                                so

              what else should I do, waiting

              for my check to be cashed but

use a large Hispano-Olivetti and its outsized carriage

sitting in the middle of the floor

 

First, tho, they

recognized me from similar occasions, the

check had some kind of stamp across its face, and they

said I had to open an account   .

                                                     OKay,

so I agreed I would open an account, if I had to, why not?

Then draw out most of the money, right?

 

I had the account almost open, all those

questions & answers & signatures, I was even

enjoying it, the

chica filling out the forms filled out a

pretty tight sweater herself, good

legs and lovely breasts resting lightly

         on the desk as she bent

             her forms

                          to those forms   .   Then,

this damned vicepresident  comes back to tell me he’d

got permission to pay me cash, I tried to look grateful  .

 

So she tore up all that paper and I had to

settle for a nice smile and the bust measurement instead of a good,

solid banking relationship .

But they weren’t thru with me yet :

 

Had to sign it twice myself (por

motivo de turismo, that horror), then

the vicepresident, then a clerk, then

another official of some sort, the whole

damned check is covered with signatures, passport No.

addresses, verifications

                          : then I wait

                                  some more  .

 

The authorization arrives back   .   even then, the

window of various pagos takes   3   people ahead of me  .

So I sit and write the first poem I’ve ever written in a bank  .

 

It   IS   a lovely typewriter, and a handsome type    .    perhaps

I should come here to write

                                 all my poems  .

 

The poem comes from The Journals, edited posthumously by Robert Kelly after Blackburn’s tragically early death to cancer. I’ve been rereading The Journals, in good part because I later felt that a slighting comment I made about them had been unfair.

 

Written in June of 1968, it’s impossible to imagine that Blackburn hasn’t already read O’Hara’s 1964 Lunch Poems some of which were written on “floor sample” typewriters in department stores. He’s both recounting a narrative about a simple enough event, cashing a check in an Italian bank, and having fun with a genre that is not precisely his own. Indeed, I see two primary differences here between what Blackburn does and O’Hara. The most obvious one perhaps is the un-self-reflective sexism. Blackburn is very much a creature of his generation in this regard – there is nothing in the poem to distance the speaker from these reductive observations. Comments like the ones here can be found throughout Blackburn’s work & give it an instantly retro air – his work “dates” in a way that few of the other New Americans seem to.*

 

More important, though, at least to my eye, is Blackburn’s ability to capture specifics & the enormous complexity of his line: so I agreed I would open an account, if I had to, why not? Even more supple than the metrics of this nine-foot line are its four assertions –

 

·         so I agreed

·         I would open an account

·         if I had to

·         why not?

– each of which carries the reading in a perceptibly different direction. There are exceptionally few poets who can do a thing of this sort well, Olson being the most obvious, though Eleni Sikelianos among more recent poets comes immediately to mind. 

 

The line is, I think, integral to the degree of information that the poet can convey. Blackburn’s line in general, with its open-endedness, its enjambments & even his use of variable spacing, is among the most complex ever achieved by a poet. I’ve sometimes thought that, as Projectivism receded in its influence after the deaths of Olson & Blackburn within a matter of months at the start of the 1970s, what was lost, more than anything else, was a sense of the inifinite possibility of the line. Creeley’s line, even at its most enjambed, is fundamentally simpler. Duncan by 1970 was in his 15-year hiatus between books.** Levertov, Dorn & Jones/Baraka had all turned elsewhere.

 

So Blackburn’s lovely poem here, at least half a joking homage to O’Hara, made me feel a profound sense of loss. Who, I thought, can write today with such specificity?

 

 

 

 

* It would be interesting to contrast Blackburn with discussions of physicality one can find in more recent gay literature, especially in some New Narrative writing, in the work of Kathy Acker, or even in the female-on-male commentary one gets on TV in HBO’s Sex in the City. I’m not convinced that Blackburn is any different save for the male-on-female perspective, even if I want to acknowledge that this is the perspective that has uniquely been aligned with power.

 

** And Duncan’s return would be sabotaged by his own insistence on a Courier typeface. By 1970, his role as a major influence on American writing was functionally over, a reality he found increasingly frustrating, perhaps especially since it seems to have been his own doing.



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