Saturday, December 13, 2003
never been what my friends in the gay community might refer to as a size queen.
With regards to poetry, what I mean by that is that the high-end fine press
printing projects that transform ordinary poems into oversize broadsides or
posters sometimes don’t work on me. I like a well-designed broadside as much as
the next poet – one of my all-time favorite projects is one of
Thus Albany has been one of only two
broadsides I’ve had up framed & matted on the walls consistently for the
past fifteen or so years, the other being “An
Alphabet of Subjects (Contents This Notebook),” literally Louis Zukofsky’s
original handwritten plan for Bottom: On
Shakespeare, published in 1979 by his widow Celia. Zukofsky’s notes were
written in a little notebook, 5 by 8 inches, from which this single page
appears to have been saved. Blown up to more than twice its original size – and
the broadside itself has a great deal of white space around it – Zukofsky’s
handwriting is still minute & precise, a testament not just to the
completeness of his vision in first contemplating this project, but his
notorious anal retentiveness as well. But Zukofsky’s original work had been,
after all, just 5 by 8, and there is not textual reason why
In fact, I can think really of just two projects that absolutely required the large poster broadside format and could not have been realized without it. One is Robert Grenier’s Cambridge M’ass, published by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press the same year as the Zukofsky poster. It is, I see from the bio notes – Grenier’s is virtually an autobiography – in the newest edition of In the American Tree, 40 by 48 inches, containing 265 poems. It is – or, in my case, was – a fabulous project. By putting up all of the poems on one page – text on little white squares of varying size floating against a black field – Grenier managed to attack the idea of order at least as deeply as the “Chinese box” publishing of Sentences, with its eminently shufflable cards.* Some “friend” – if only I could remember who – “borrowed” my copy of Cambridge M’ass in the relatively early 1980s & never remembered. [If you’re reading this, remember that it’s not too late to return it!] And by then it was already out of print.
The second project that absolutely demanded the large post broadside form was Ronald Johnson’s Blocks to be Arranged in a Pyramid, published as LVNG Supplemental Series, no. 1, in an edition of 366 in 1996. This broadside is wider than it is high, 19 inches by 25.The poem itself consists of 66 quatrains, printed in what appears to me to be 11-point Times Roman on a 13-point line. The first stanza is centered at the top of the page, the next two stanzas appear in the “line” beneath the first, one slightly to the left, the other slightly to the right. The third such line has three stanzas, the fourth four and so forth – there are eleven of these “lines” of stanzas altogether. The first three stanzas might give a hint of what this is like:
Then with a sweep
afire with egress
step in a blink rolled door aside
blank as paper And stood beside space
few fields beyond place of sepulcher
pure fallen Snow in splice of time
It’s interesting that, unlike works with parallel columns, the visual set up of this piece never leaves on (or never leaves me at least) wondering whether I should read down or across – these are very evidently, even confidently stanzas, intended to be heard whole, each by each, even if we proceed between them left to right. It’s also interesting to see a line – it is very much that – that proceeds stanza by stanza, even if as here the effect is primarily graphic. Just to imagine how that curious invisible thing we call “the line” can be in any way different without simply going scattershot across the page a la Olson is a tremendous feat.
Unlike most political art – this is very much an AIDS poem, unapologetically so – Blocks to be Arranged in a Pyramid is some of – may even be – Ronald Johnson’s strongest poetry. One of course hears all the echoes of Zukofsky, as one does even in Johnson’s Milton in Radi Os, but the influence is so utterly put to new purposes that it’s transformed & the sense of Johnson as a derivative poet here is no different, really, than one gets in the work of Robert Duncan, who argued, at times convincingly, that all poetry needs to be understood as derivative. It’s a wonderful work &, when I get some extra cash, this is very apt to be the third broadside framed & up on the wall.
What evoked all this was that I’ve been getting Big Mail lately. Not just the Johnson, which Devon Johnston so kindly sent awhile back, but also Derek Beaulieu’s wonderful With Wax from Buffalo’s Cuneiform Press. This isn’t a broadside, but a book, a BIG BOOK, whose text is printed literally on a single sheet of paper that folds out the way car ads do from Sports Illustrated to reveal four exquisite little prose poems, set in 18-point type on 24-point lines. Like Albany, With Wax didn’t have to be so lovely, it just is. In fact, my copy arrived with the most beautifully printed press release – because of the dark blue handmade paper – I have ever seen. Not readable, mind you, but fabulous nonetheless.
But With Wax’s 12.25 by 9.75 inch format –
the website calls it 34.5 by 24 cm, folding out to a 34.5 by 96 cm page – is
just a pocketbook in comparison with Accurate
Key 1.5, a supplement to Accurate
Key, a Milwaukee-based journal that appears to publish all
of its works in broadside format. Its inaugural issue came in a box
(with a John Wieners poem printed into its inner “back” cover), even if the
individual pages were ordinary enough 7.5 by 10 inch sheets. But 1.5 is 17
inches high by 8.5 wide – fit that into
your bookcase! The works in both issues are quite wonderful – there is a
Creeley in the inaugural issue & Alice Notely appears in both, plus some of
particular reminds me of a time, many moons ago, when
There were only 275 copies of the box and I can’t find any details concerning 1.5, but an email to firstname.lastname@example.org might at least tell you if any of these are still available.
* Michael Davidson used to tell a story of assigning Sentences to his students who would have to troop to UCSD’s special collections office in the library to inspect it, the undergraduates being ever so responsible and taking great care to not get the cards “out of order” only to get hysterical if & when Davidson himself happened by, came up to the deck and literally shuffled it in front of them.
** To this day, Colin has a Hatch poster of a “circus alphabet” framed on the wall of his room.
Friday, December 12, 2003
spring & summer of 1958, Hilda Doolittle was living in Klinik
Hirslanden in Kűsnacht, Switzerland, functionally a private hospital for
the well-to-do that would be viewed today – indeed, it is now a part of the Hirslanden
Private Hospital Group – as something between a board-and-care home &
long-term psychiatric facility, really in H.D.’s case an assisted living accommodation.
At the behest of Norman Holmes Pearson, the critic who proved to be H.D.’s
greatest advocate during the post-WW2 years, Doolittle attempts to construct a
memoir of her first love, Ezra Pound, with whom she has not been seriously
romantically involved since before the First World War. Pound at this point is
also in a psychiatric facility, albeit one with far fewer pretensions to being
a resort, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in
Doolittle’s process approximates that of Tribute to Freud, which New Directions published two years before & the success of that project is no doubt at least part of what Pearson hoped to get at in getting Doolittle to restart a project she had attempted earlier in 1950 but never been able to complete. End to Torment, her Pound book, was not published until 1979, eighteen years after her death and after those of Pound & Pearson as well. It’s even more slender & fragmentary than Tribute to Freud, and its title – ostensibly an allusion to Pound’s release from his hospital – strikes me as remarkably ambiguous.*
Robert Duncan’s own H.D. Book, I find
it remarkable to imagine that Doolittle herself had been involved in an almost
parallel process with regards to Pound right before
Robert himself embarked on his own project. Robert, of course, never had been
involved personally with Doolittle, having met her only briefly during her one
for this is Doolittle’s white hot jealousy for what
she presumes to be Pound’s love interest of the moment, a young painter then in
her early thirties by the name of Sherri
Martinelli. By 1958, H.D.’s own relationship to Pound is at best one of
sporadic correspondence – she notes that his letters are incomprehensible. Yet, having begun this memoir at Pearson’s suggestion, she gets
through Pearson a copy of “Weekend with Pound,” a slightly more than six-page
account of Pound’s life at the hospital by poet David Rattray, accompanied by
Wyndham Lewis’ famous portrait
of Pound reclining & a poem, “Ezra Pound in Paris and Elsewhere” by
Ramon Sender, that appeared in The Nation
the previous October.** Rattray’s portrait of Pound is studded with cameo
portraits of the various acolytes who regularly visited Pound, allowing the old
fascist to pontificate to a willing audience & turning St. Elizabeth’s into
“Ezuversity.” Rattray does not think much of
Martinelli – he originally mistakes her for another inmate of the asylum – and
comments at length as to Pound’s hugs, kisses, and literally running his hands
through her hair. Rattray’s suggestion is quite clear –
Elsewhere & much later, Humphrey Carpenter takes up the question of whether or not Martinelli was ever Pound’s lover in his biography, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, and isn’t fully convinced. But Martinelli herself appears to have acknowledged it & was clearly involved with more than a few other artists in her time – she is the source for Esme in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions and was once involved in a triangle between him & Anatole Broyard. She became a friend to Allen Ginsberg & later had a long correspondence with Charles Bukowski.
Lover or not, Martinelli is viewed remarkably by H.D. She calls her Undine – she seems unable or unwilling to actually employ Martinelli’s name*** – Goethe’s symbol for water (or mermaid, or, perhaps most pointedly, siren). She pulls quotes from The Nation, substituting the name – thus H.D.’s quotation “’Pound embraced Undine as on the day before’” is actually derived from Rattray’s “It was time to leave, and Pound embraced Miss Martinelli as on the day before.”
[New Directions was exceptionally cautious in the area of libel in those decades, the result I believe of a suit that arose from Williams’ own autobiography, but it is unimaginable that the press would have required this symbolism of Undine when any half competent reader could walk down to the library and look up the original text.]
June 6, Friday
Undine. “O swallow – my sister . . . the world’s division divideth us . . .” off to strange adventure, looking for a
I take as
index of just how emotional H.D. is in that passage the fact that the her that precedes the word father (bracketed in quotes no less) is
not Gregg, but Doolittle herself. Indeed, elsewhere Doolittle does compare Pound
with her father. [It was on a visit to her astronomer father
that the 19-year-old Pound first met the 15-year-old Doolittle, just as later
Doolittle at points has a hard time keeping Martinelli/Undine straight in her discussions of her. She compares her writing of Helen to Martinelli’s six-year relation with “the Maestro,” “an attempt, not unsuccessful, to retain a relationship, materially ‘ditched.” The June 25 entry reads, in its entirety,
Poor Undine! They don’t want you, they really don’t. How shall we reconcile ourselves to this? . . .
Sentiment, sentimentality struggle with reason. . . . [Ellipses in original]
On July 2, “Undine” is again not a symbol of H.D., but of Gregg.
So this project of Doolittle’s, which I see as parallel at least at some level to the one on which Duncan (himself full of parenting issues, having been “adopted” by mystics literally on the basis of his horoscope) is soon to begin in his own writing of The H.D. Book, has at its heart deeply torn & passionate emotions directed at events long ago & far away. H.D. is rather the queen of unfinished psychic business & End to Torment is, in its own ethereal way, as hot & claustrophobic as any volume Kathy Acker ever wrote. The lust & emotional turmoil of a woman then aged 71 is something we’re not often permitted to see in literature. And it startles me.
* Albeit the title may well have been imposed by Pearson & Michael King, who succeeded him as the book’s editor. Nonetheless, Doolittle’s uses of that phrase in the volume made that an almost inescapable choice.
** The very next article in the issue is lengthy attack on Jack Kerouac & On the Road by novelist Herbert Gold. Although, in a surreal little twist, Gold’s piece is followed by Albert Camus’ preface to The Stranger.
*** Rattray doesn’t make it any easier for H.D. He never gives us her Christian name, referring to her only as Miss Martinelli, although she was in fact Mrs. Martinelli, having been married to the painter Ezio Martinelli. Her maiden name had actually been Shirley Burns Brennan.
Thursday, December 11, 2003
Along with my copy of Michael McClure’s Fifteen Fleas came the fourth issue of Sal Mimeo, a publication whose title never ceases to cause a twinkle in the eyes of my wife & kids – I’m not sure my boys even get the pun yet either. Sal’s cover has artwork by Trevor Winkfield, the most literate of artists who proves it in spades by editing an accompanying Supplement to Sal.
The current issue of Sal is terrific & almost shockingly thick for its stapled-on-the-left-margin format. In addition to some special treats – the largest selection of new work by Jean Day I’ve seen in ages – Sal includes several poems by the late Joan Murray, this season’s official rediscovery, thanks to John Ashbery’s reminiscence in the Poetry Project Newsletter awhile back. In Supplement, Winkfield extends this process of literary resurrection by including not only the fashionable – Harry Matthews, the late Veronica Forrest-Thompson – and famous – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Stéphane Mallarmé – but some deeply obscure blasts from the archives as well. One example is the 18th century poet William Diaper, once a protégé of Jonathan Swift, or Clere Parsons, the 1928 editor of Oxford Poetry, who died in ’31 of pneumonia & diabetes. Or, more recently, Emily Greenley, a Boston-area poet of the 1980s who took her own life at 24.* Or Hugh Creighton Hill, of whom I know only that he once corresponded with poet-sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay.
poems by the bard of
I shot a shotgun
That outlasted a pistol
That should have been
A spade and a shovel
That poem is an almost perfect machine, its various sleights-of-hand so gentle & deft, such as the use of that first preposition During. Almost as succinct is “For All I Know”:
for all I know
someone else said that
“A black cricket
That stays at a black thicket
Is for later August”
for all I know
someone else said that
lake waters are thirstier
for some other kinds of August stars
I’m not entirely certain that the last couplet here works – the last line is too long for my ear – but I’m willing to accept that in order to get that fabulous “quotation” in/of the second stanza, which turns exactly on the contrast between the end rhymes of its first two lines and the slightly askew use of later in the third.
* There is a large selection of Greenley’s work in Shiny 9/10.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
A question implicit in Michael McClure’s Fifteen Fleas, for me at least, is one of timing – of velocity, really. As the stanza I quoted yesterday suggests, the play of aural elements increases the speed with which the ear & reading mind process what is on the page. It literally skips along. This is not an unusual element for a text heavy on its own sense of oral presentation – one can find parallels in the writing of Anne Waldman, Charles Olson & Allen Ginsberg. One finds it elsewhere in McClure’s work as well, yet he has always been remarkably skillful at the timing of details in his poetry – it’s an aspect that has always kept his more science oriented texts from ever seeming dry or convoluted – he knows just when to dole the next detail out. He has always been, at heart, a philosophical writer, but where others might write dry, lean, carefully nuanced ironies (bitterly so if your name is Bill Bronk), McClure proceeds through the same territory shouting & laughing – and knowing also when to whisper.
Indeed, I think one could read McClure very profitably as an intense & extended study of velocity & range. Consider, for example, “The Foam” from McClure’s 1994 volume, Simple Eyes:
IT IS BRAVE TO BE THE FOAM
and sing the foam
IT IS BRAVE TO BE THE FOAM,
Inside is no place but an infinitude
they too are the foam.
The deer antler fallen on the grass within the yard
as is the dew that mottles it.
Thousand foot deep clouds of one-celled beings
with shells of silicon and waving pseudopods
in oceans in another time and place
as are the uplifted peaks of shale they leave behind.
The visions of William Blake in future caves of thought
that are meat and plastic-steel are foam,
--as are Whitehead's luminous dreams
Matter, antimatter, Forces, particles, clouds of mud,
the wind that blows in cypress trees, pools of oil
on desert floors.
THE BOY'S EYES NO LONGER SQUINT, LOOK DOWN
and there is nothing in his hand
nothing in his hand that's everything
and he stares through squeezed caves
at a man's eyes
that shape a photograph of him
upon the fields of war and appetite
for iridescent foam of nacre-red and green and
on beaches on a wave-lapped shore
WHERE HIS MOTHER/FATHER SCREAM AND
and throw each other on the floor
! ARISEN !
from this exuberance
and wears his red Y upon his woolen chest
for it is his
--as is the future state
THIS IS NOT METAPHOR
the green fur forest just beyond the sleek
and glossy plastic edge; shrews in their hunt
for crickets, hiding in moon shadows
underneath a rusting ford. Blue-black waves
beat on hulls of ferries. Light moves
from one place, or condition, to another!
HE'S THERE NOW AND EVERYWHERE
HE'S THERE NOW AND EVERYWHERE
as are the covers of detective magazines
with evil scientists who scalpel-out
the hearts of large-bosomed virgins
strapped to beds, then implant
the pump of chrome that sits upon
the operating table;
as is the broken toothpick lying
in the rain; as are the
PASSION THAT HE FEELS
(shaking in his boy's legs and cock
--And those are the stuff of stars
that are the flesh of passions that he spins
into this rush of neurons and of popping foam.
These make immortal perfect shapes of the moments
that hold copper-colored leaves or twigs within
with each foot upon a war and each arm
and every thought in one.
AN ANIMAL IS A MIND!
--A MIND--AND DOES NOT KNOW WHERE IT STOPS!
--Knows little of bounds or limits or edges.
--Goes on into all times and directions and dimensions.
--KNOWING ONLY THROUGH LIMITS THAT CANNOT BE KNOWN!
--IS A BEING OF SHEER SPIRIT!
--IS A BEING OF SHEER SPIRIT!
--IS A BEING OF BOUNDLESS MEAT!
--IS EVERYTHING IN ONE DOT OF THE CONFLAGRATION!
IS EVERYTHING IN ONE BARE DOT
IS EVERYTHING IN ONE DOT OF THE CONFLAGRATION!!
This is war that he is, and melts in
AND IT IS NOT WAR,
HE IS A MAN
HE IS AN ANIMAL BEING
HE IS AN ANIMAL BEING
through the windows of his eyes
fingers and his eyes
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to excerpt from a McClure poem precisely because so many of its effects depend directly on context & because velocity is not just a local device, but rather one generated by the whole of a text going forward. If I were to cite the stanza about the “green fur forest” above out of its context, it’s almost impossible to hear how it functions in contrast both to what comes before & what follows. And to a degree unmatched by other poets, certainly of his generation, these effects are not incidental, but central to the McClure experience, precisely because experience cannot be absorbed atemporally, outside of time.
This is what makes Fifteen Fleas ultimately a problematic book, containing just 15 of 250 such stanzas – the one I quoted yesterday is the 79th in the sequence & neither the 78th or 80th are to be found here. It’s almost a strobe-effect sort of editing, like catching small snatches of a song, its larger melody hidden. The impact is to make me crave the larger book.
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
Perhaps because he went through a period of such intense notoriety for his plays in the late 1960s – The Beard was the focal point of a major obscenity case – the poetry of Michael McClure never has received the degree of attention accorded his peers – Rod Phillips’ monograph in the Boise State Western Writers Series standing out as one notable exception, a symposium in the Margins series back in the 1970s being another. It’s a situation McClure shares with some poets of his own age cohort who got to be better known for their fiction than for their verse – Richard Brautigan & Gilbert Sorrentino, to name two. Yet one might fairly call both Sorrentino & Brautigan novelists who started as poets. McClure, on the other hand, has always been a poet who also wrote plays. Even in his theater, the centrality of poetry to his art & life has always been evident.
Fifteen Fleas, his latest book, published by the Nijinsky
Suicide Health Club, contains 15 pieces from a much longer 1960s project
entitled just Fleas. The larger
project consists of 250 stanzas, “rhymed and spontaneous and written as fast as
I could type on an electric typewriter.” If you want an ethos of a generation
in a single phrase, that one’s not too far off, at least for a certain segment
of the world that came through the Beat & Hippie eras with its sense of
optimism intact. The entire project took just over one month, between
When I first glanced at the title however, I misconstrued its implications. To a degree that has never been approached by an another American poet, McClure has always been fascinated by the sciences, ranging wide from biology & zoology to astronomy & physics.* My first thought was that Fleas implied a worldview as envisioned from the minute vantage of a parasite. That is the sort of project that McClure has been willing to tackle, often to great profit. But if insects & parasites are at play here, it’s only at the level of a pun – the actual horizon of this text is a series of childhood memories processed through McClure’s remarkably aural language engine. Here is a not atypical stanza:
BUT WHY NO FACES IN THE BUNCH OF GRAPES
I REMEMBER THE APES
Multiple sex on a trapeze
(try a trampoline)
on the loose
Huge blue and bruises on the legs.
Under the Y in the giant cave amongst
Secret cave somewhere in the Flint Hills.
The chamber of farts.
On belly through the slickery passages.
and bananas and a tin can full of change.
not all – of the Beats thought that poetry should be fun & McClure’s
orality does a superb job of communicating this – pleasure has a lot to do with
its popularity as a literary tendency (and, coincidentally, is what McClure has
in common with a seemingly dissimilar poet such as
Like flarf in the 21st century, McClure’s Fleas are happy to announce their existence as prattle, the arts hidden literally in farts. It’s the kind of play we associate with children’s rhymes or Dr. Seuss, but with a scatological (& sociological) dimension that is anything but kid-lit (or at least that was the case in 1969, long before the rise of Captain Underpants). As such, it’s a poetics of process not product – rather than well-wrought urn, McClure’s focus is on the spinning of the wheel & its rhythm, the physical sensuality of all that wet clay, on the being shaped rather than the shape made.
* Indeed, the best known critique of McClure’s poetry is this piece by Frances Crick, co-discoverer of DNA.
Monday, December 08, 2003
Rodney Koeneke responds to my comments on prizes & awards.
I share your suspicion of contests and
what they mean to the wider writing scene. My critique lost some of its
edge though when I won the Transcontinental Poetry Award from David Baratier's Pavement Saw Press this year (
Since the award, David's made an effort to get to know me and to send me work of other poets he likes or thinks I will. I've been impressed with what a genuine fan he is of other writers' stuff, especially poets who maybe haven't gotten their due; the Simon Perchik book's a great example. My experience isn't typical, I know, but I can't help feeling that if more contests were like Pavement Saw's, there'd be a lot less cynicism about them. So three cheers for David Baratier!
Koeneke’s enthusiasm for Baratier – his is the kind of work that gives the
community of poetry genuine substance. But
· Dana Curtis, The Body’s Response to Famine, 1999
· Jeffrey Levine, Mortal, Everlasting, 2000
· Sofia Starnes, A Commerce of Moments, 2001
Sunday, December 07, 2003