Saturday, February 28, 2004

 

Brad Senning of the Dissociated Writer’s Project asked me to post this:

 

March 25-27, in Chicago, the Dissociated Writer's Project will host its 2nd annual Festival of the Arts, with readings, roundtable discussions on Speculative Literature, and literature and film, and bands. For more info, go to www.dissociatedwritersproject.com.

 

As one might expect from speculative literature (especially when it puts itself in Caps), the website here is full of the sort of self-canceling overstatements that would make Augie Highland & Todd Swift quiver. I hunted around the archive & while the fiction I found here seems like predictable fare, the poems of Dan Hoy struck me as interesting & worth reading. Those I will recommend.

 

 

Җ         Җ         Җ

 

Michael McClure & Ron Silliman

Wednesday, March 3, 8 PM

St. Marks Poetry Project, NYC

 

Ron Silliman's life can be viewed in real-time on his weblog, ronsilliman.blogspot.com (which has now been visited more than 100,000 times). His 25th book, Woundwood, is forthcoming from Cuneiform Press. Others include the anthology, In the American Tree, a book of essays and talks on poetics, The New Sentence, and Ketjak, Tjanting, The Age of Huts, What, (R), Demo to Ink, ABC, and Paradise. He lives just south of Valley Forge in Pennsylvania and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.

 

Michael McClure is a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright, and the author of Hymns to St. Geryon, Dark Brown, Ghost Tantras, Rare Angel, Scratching the Beat Surface, Selected Poems, Huge Dreams, Rain Mirror, and Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven, among many others. He published his first book, Passage, in 1956, a year after the legendary Six Gallery reading. He won an Obie for Josephine the Mouse Singer, and his notorious play The Beard was shut down by police after 14 consecutive nights in LA. He is a Professor at California College of Arts and Crafts, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area hills with his wife, the sculptor Amy Evans McClure. [8:00 pm]

*

The Poetry Project is located at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street at Second Avenue
New York City 10003
Trains: 6, F, N, R, and L.
info@poetryproject.com
www.poetryproject.com

Admission is $8, $7 for students/seniors and $5 for members (though now
those who take out a membership at $85 or higher will get in FREE to all
regular readings).



Friday, February 27, 2004

 

In acting, the problem of the unmarked case is always a difficult situation for an actor. Michael Pitt, who stars as Matthew in The Dreamers, the blond, semi-square American from San Diego seduced by the more-Parisian-than-thou twins. It’s not an unfamiliar situation for the 22-year-old Pitt, who played the anti-Rob Brown in Finding Forrester & the troubled Tommy Gnosis against John Cameron Mitchell’s inspired over-the-top sex-change-botch-job-turned-failed-rock-star in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

 

The contrast between the roles of Matthew in the Bertolucci movie & Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig are interesting, because as Matthew Pitt has to hold his own as an actor in a role that the director himself seems confused about, whereas in the more strongly conceived Hedwig, all of the energy in the film virtually drains away whenever Pitt comes onscreen. It is precisely his inability to stand up to Mitchell as an actor that keeps that film from being the finest musical in the past 20 years.*

 

The problem of the unmarked case, of course, haunts everything in society, not just cinema. One of the more enlightening aspects of the gay marriage hoo-hah is simply how the existence of another model, any other model, suddenly highlights an entire chain of presumptions about “normal” marriage that heretofore may have seemed invisible. Not the least of which is the way in which the entire idea of the state’s insertion into the process transforms what may otherwise appear to be a personal or spiritual ritual. Gay marriages quite obviously don’t threaten straight ones, which only points up the ways in which the so-called Defense of Marriage Act itself really isn’t about marriage so much as it is about codifying homophobia. Now of course, George W & Co. have imagined even further, more horrific ways to attempt that.

 

Straight white males, for good reason, have some insight into what it feels like to be the unmarked case – it feels “normal” & “natural.” Which is precisely why the instances that prove revealing & enriching artistically, whether in film or poetry or whatever, are those that either deconstruct or overstate the case. In that latter sense, it is precisely the overblown macho at the heart of Olson’s Maximus that is one of its more endearing qualities – Olson’s absent-minded professor is also (always already) Archie Bunker.

 

Much of the debate of homosexuality in this country has to do with definitions of sexual orientation & identity. It was, after all, the gay community itself that, in the late 19th century, promoted the model of homosexuality as a “disease” – the alternate choice back then was “crime” – only to see that solution turned into an excuse for a half-century of torture in medical contexts. The conception of it as “identity,” on which much of the current rhetoric of gay rights still rests, however, fails to acknowledge the plasticity of identity itself. And because gay rights activists, as well as the Christian right, are deeply wedded to identity as such, we are, I suspect, a century away – at minimum – from fully understanding what any of these terms really means.

 

Which takes me back to my irritation at the less-than-successful elements of The Dreamers. To the degree that Bertolucci wants to make this a film about sexual obsessiveness, sort of a Last Tango for kids, he confuses it by bringing in the third party – not the American Matthew, but the brother Theo. He tries to resolve it at one point – it may even be the high point of the picture – in having Theo bring home a girl from school so that he too can share in what Matthew & Isabelle have going on. Isabelle, shut out of his sexual adventure, pounds the walls with jealousy & fury. But the extraneous element of the fourth party – who is in the movie only to set this one scene up – points to Bertolucci’s incompleteness of vision. In actuality, to have made this film a true tale of obsession, he would have had to make Theo & Matthew lovers as well. He flirts with the possibility early on, just to let us know that he is aware of the issue, but fails to follow through. And in this respect, one might say the failure of The Dreamers is precisely that its sexuality is too gendered.

 

 

 

* A position it cedes not to such overblown messes as Moulin Rouge or Chicago, both of which were filled with actors who don’t particularly do well acting, singing or dancing, but to Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, which succeeds in part because it, like Hedwig, is conceived of as a “small film.”



Thursday, February 26, 2004

 

Back before Mel Gibson figured out how to market a splatter flick through the evangelical community, the immediate controversy in film was over Bernardo Bertolucci’s latest film, The Dreamers. Is it Bertolucci’s best film in years, as some critics have claimed, or so campily bad that it’s unintentionally funny? The answer, as it happens, is neither, really. Although it has elements in it that enable you to see where both positions are grounded.

 

The set up is this. Matthew, a twentyish American from San Diego, is spending the spring of 1968 studying abroad in Paris. There he is adopted – that’s really the right word – by some twins who share his passion for cinema. When Isabelle & Theo’s parents – dad is a poet (as was Bertolucci’s father) – depart for a month in the country, the twins coax Matthew to live in their roomy Parisian flat. There, after learning that Isabelle & Theo sleep together, Matthew is “seduced” – tho if the genders were reversed, it would border on rape – and the three become enmeshed in a claustrophobic world of erotic exploration that ends, after Isabelle has very nearly killed all three of them, when the street riots of that spring literally intrude in the form of a brick through the window. Matthew, whose anti-Vietnam War feelings have brought him closer to a pacifist’s position than the Molotov-cocktail tossing Theo, can’t handle the conflict & turns away. End of story.

 

 Except that this synopsis tells you almost nothing of what is really going on. For example, central to the infatuation of all the movie’s champions are the ways in which the three film-obsessed kids are constantly viewing themselves & the world as an endless series of quotations of favorite film moments. Bertolucci indulges this side of the film, especially during the first hour, without restraint & there are fabulous moments in which the film’s action is intercut with the very moments of film history to which it refers (a run through the Louvre, a Garbo scene). My favorite such moment, tho, is a scene that mimics Godard almost perfectly as Theo reads from revolutionary theory underneath giant leftwing posters as Matthew attempts to argue theory with him.

 

But the deeper tale is the one of the psycho-sexual entanglements of the three characters. The film – the first NC-17 rating for a film in the U.S. since Henry and June – could have been produced as a play, its three main figures wandering about the apartment in various states of undress. And it’s here that the film’s detractors find the grist for their mill. For a film about three nubile youngsters obsessed with sex & each other, the sex in this film is just dreadful. If this were a Hollywood film, the three would be comically inept. But in this French-Italian-American production, they’re just incompetent. Combine this with the overly pompous pseudo-profundities that all three use to grope around their thoughts & feelings and you can see why one critic, Liz Penn, could write “If I were 20 years old and bursting with cinematic passion (or just wanted to pretend I was), I'd gladly line up on a Saturday at midnight to yell snarky things at the screen.”

 

This, however, is a misreading of the film. It seems quite clear that Bertolucci, who has covered aspects of this territory before in Last Tango in Paris & Stealing Beauty, intends the three to be just this bad. It’s the visual presentation of inexperience & this film is precisely about the desire for experience coming up against the reality of practice. Bertolucci is attracted to these hinge conditions, as if trying to identify a membrane that, once crossed, can never be reversed. In Stealing Beauty, Liv Tyler’s virginity is so palpable to the other characters one almost expects to see it listed among the players in the credits. Debra Winger’s confrontation with North Africa as Other in The Sheltering Sky represents the same sort of passage (and, not coincidentally, got the same sort of divided reception that has greeted The Dreamers*).

 

But where the film gets lost, it seems to me, is in Bertolucci’s inability to fully grasp the relationship of the three main characters. Where this is most clear is in the role of Theo, which is never well defined & which becomes more & more peripheral to the film as Isabelle & her American attempt to reinvent the kama sutra, even tho he is the one who must take the decisive act in the final scene that sunders the trio for good. I’ve seen The Dreamers characterized as a drama of sexual obsession & compared with Last Tango – Liz Penn’s review is entitled “Worst Tango in Paris,” no less – or with the true masterpiece of this genre, Ai No Corrida. I’ve also seen The Dreamers characterized as a ménage à trois film, and that’s not right either. Isabelle may sleep with her brother, literally sleep, & they may enjoy watching each other’s sexual activity, but, as Matthew discovers to his surprise, she is still technically a virgin at the start of the film.

 

Rather, The Dreamers is a tale of what happens to a folie à deux when it is disrupted by the intrusion of an outside influence (just as the brick through the window disrupts Isabelle’s attempt to gas the trio, letting in some fresh air). Folie à deux is a specific psychiatric disorder, notable in that it requires more than one individual. But it’s also a type that we’ve seen all too often in recent society, in everything from the Branch Dividians to the Manson Family to the Weather Underground. The chief linguistic aspect of a folie à deux is that it’s always a closed language system. Contradictory information cannot penetrate from outside. Thus you can find it in couples under the spell of a sexual obsession – Ai No Corrida is a good example – but in broader social phenomena as well, including any group whose inner discourse reinforces an insider code & keeps the outer world at bay. It’s the discursive characteristic of sects of all kinds.

 

But the classic film – and Bertolucci should have known this – of the disruption of such a closed system is none other than Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which the presence of a new couple – “fresh meat” I believe is the phrase Albee uses – causes the corrosive symbiosis of George & Martha to implode. In Waco, it was the arrival of the ATF & FBI that intruded on David Koresh & his followers. In Jonestown, it only took a visit from a congressman & a few staffers to set off a chain that killed over 900 people. One wonders what it might take to intrude on the Bush national security apparatus, given that the president deliberately refuses to read newspapers so as not to spoil his worldview with data from the real. In the last administration to demonstrate these characteristics, it took a single guard noticing some Scotch tape on a door at the Watergate apartments to cause the whole delusion to unravel.

 

In The Dreamers, Matthew is the outside element. He never fully becomes a party to the mindset – it never becomes a folie à trois. But because Bertolucci so identifies with Matthew, he fails to give us enough insight into the critical relationship between the twins, which causes Theo to seem narratively adrift once Matthew & Isabelle have finally crossed that threshold of the flesh. It’s as if Mike Nichols had filmed Woolf by focusing on the relation not of Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha to Richard Burton’s George, but on her relationship to the George Segal character instead.

 

Intellectually, narratively, that’s an interesting project. But it’s not the movie that Bertolucci thinks he’s making. The result sort of mushes tropes & types together. This is true not just for Theo, whose role loses purpose for a large part of the film only to become decisive in the last five minutes, but for Matthew as well. It’s worth noting just how badly Bertolucci has envisioned the San Diegan here – what student/film buff in 1968 would show up in Paris in a cheap suit & bad haircut? Matthew’s look is strictly 1950s. If this is intended to accentuate his differences with the hipper-than-Jean-Pierre-Leaud twins, it doesn’t work. The distinction between French & American youth culture by the late 1960s was not that one was hip, the other not, but rather that the two subcultures had very different definitions of what hip meant. Bertolucci almost approaches this in what is probably the key theoretical discussion of the film – Chaplin or Keaton, who was the better actor/comic? Matthew takes Keaton (as would I) & Theo is dumbfounded. Matthew reads Keaton as an author of his films & characters alike, while Theo – reduced here to a foil for Bertolucci’s identification with Matthew – offers a defense of Chaplin that is romantic & humanist, hardly a position one would have been likely to find circa 1968. Bertolucci’s real argument here is with cinema prior, say, to World War 2, but instead it comes off as clunky & pompous in the mouths of teenagers. Which is what happens, I guess, when you send in children to do the work of adults.

 

 

 

* For my money, it’s Bertolucci’s most successful film & easily the best role Winger will ever have.



Wednesday, February 25, 2004

 

The only way there was enough seating at the Painted Bride for Gil Ott’s memorial service on Sunday was because (a) they put up a couple of rows of seats onto the stage area of the theater space, & (b) all those folks in wheelchairs come with their own seating. As former Painted Bride direct Gerry Givnish noted in welcoming everyone, Gil was instrumental in the creation, growth & success of this community institution. Every aspect of Gil’s complex if too short life was present & accounted for at the service – his best friend from second grade with whom he’d later lived in a tree house near Bolinas, poets & artists & musicians, non-profit administrators whose theater companies relied on Gil for advice, disabled artists who met him teaching writing in homeless shelters, Julia’s coworkers & Willa’s classmates from Germantown Academy.

 

Eli Goldblatt delivered the eulogy, Bob Perelman read from Gil’s poems. Gil’s brother Allen spoke of giving Gil his kidney – one of five transplants Gil endured – calling it the “most difficult & satisfying” thing he had ever done. Julia spoke & sang & Willa read a poem that Gil had written to her. Eli and Wendy Osterwei led a song that Gil had written, “Night and Day Will Pass Away” & toward the end everyone sang a second song, “Moon Don’t Run on Gasoline,” written by Gil’s old San Francisco pal Kush.

 

Afterwards, everyone stood around & marveled at the reception at all that Gil had done & accomplished, virtually every bit of it during the half of his life when he struggled with renal failure. Gil first began Paper Air in 1976, in part to focus his energies on something beyond his medical treatments during his first serious bout with the disease. This coming Friday would have been Gil’s 54th birthday.



Tuesday, February 24, 2004

 

John Latta was amused to see me “thrashing about, trying to place Kathleen Fraser.” He seems not to want to see me struggling with discrete categories forced into coupling, even if that’s the title of Fraser’s new book. Latta, who I believe was part of the Cornell scene around Baxter Hathaway once upon a time, has some interesting things to say about Fraser’s work as well as making an argument of sorts against scenes – really against community as such. The isolato is such an American stance, but so 19th century. All the great isolato figures of the 20th century (Pound, Olson, Kerouac) were actually obsessed with community.

 

Kathleen herself wrote to correct a few dates (she & Jack Marshall got to NYC in ’59), add some nuances (they were friends with Joe Ceravolo, among others) & wants me most of all to underscore the importance of Susan Gevirtz in the project of HOW(ever). Duly noted!

 

I spent the last couple of days thinking about Fraser’s new book, Discrete Categories Forced Into Coupling, thinking in particular of all the ways in which that title strikes me as being remarkably literal. At one point, reading through it, I thought that the different projects might be viewed as proposing open versus closed conceptions of their forms – four that are largely prose, two largely in verse. But then, rereading, I decided that wasn’t it at all, but rather that all six are open in the sense of being open-ended, permeable, but using different conceptions of what that might mean. Then I thought to myself that the book might be read “narratively” as evolving from the series that most offers a glimpse of closure, the prose works of “Champs (fields) & between,” toward the most open-ended, the progressive erasures of “AD notebooks,” addressing the losses & disappearances that accompany Alzheimer’s. But then I thought to myself that “Soft pages,” a prose journal, and the one-act play “Celeste & Sirius” are in their own  ways at least as open-ended as “AD notebooks,” perhaps more so. And, in spite of its title, the mostly verse poems in “from Fiamma’s sketchbook,” which appears after the verse play & before “AD notebooks,” offer perhaps the strongest hints of closure in the entire book. I could really imagine John Latta having fun at my thrashing around here!

 

It did occur to me, tho, that possibly Fraser’s book title might have it backwards, that what we have here, seriously, are coupling categories forced into discreteness. Now part of what is going on, from my perspective, however topsy-turvy, is that these works, like any writing project, confront the question of openness along two separate axes.

 

First: openness to the world itself, daily life, referentiality something like the invocation of real names, which are always received differently by different people & which, of almost all words, are those whose meanings erode the most rapidly. What does it mean to dedicate a work to Joan Mitchell, who has been dead for a dozen years? Or Eva Hesse, gone even longer? For the most part, Fraser avoids the use of names within her texts themselves, often preferring pronouns, sometimes gendered (he & she), but often not (you is the key figure in “from Fiamma’s sketchbook”).

 

Second: the openness of poetic form, which varies from piece to piece. The very use of “from” in the title of a sequence, especially one characterized as being from a sketchbook, suggests something excerpted from a whole, yet the individual pieces are distinct & elegantly composed. Here, to drive the point home, is the first poem in “from Fiamma’s sketchbook,” “Hotel Classic”:

 

The interior stress of a leaf was forming its own never version

when the hotel came under renovation. Steps led downward

to a drawing of trees, at least in the early draft pinned to his light box.

The architect described in his notes what he thought they wanted,

the clients equal to stargazers or foreign diplomats and wives of

officials from Milano, and he felt that something could happen

on the stairs, an event or motion, as if to rush towards

that noise of the entire tree in stress.

 

The linebreaks are so muted as to border on prose – but in fact are not, as both that early break on the next-to-last line and two later poems in the sequence make evident – and the tone itself seems deliberately muted, perhaps oddly so coming from a sketchbook that belonged apparently to someone whose name translates as Flame. The scramble of phonemes that renders stress very nearly an acronym for trees is by no means coincidental here – Fraser reiterates the st sound in Steps & stargazer. Yet what is the action being depicted here? An architect’s note & his feelings: something could happen, not did, and not happening now.

 

Writing quietly is perhaps the surest test of the mature poet – poets under the age of 40 find it virtually impossible & more than a few older ones (e.g., moi) never do learn quite how to achieve this. It requires trusting in the ear & intelligence of your audience, and in your own abilities to make the most subtle shifts perceptible. Fraser makes it seem so very simple that I’m completely jealous of her talents here. Here is one of the three prose poems “from Fiamma’s sketchbook,” this one given as a title the name of the first female Impressionist painter, “Berthe Morisot

 

Not white. Not the actual resemblance of anything “white” or “pink” nor its absence, either. Not wayward nor bottled, containing foam from any excess

 

observed from triangular pouches rising beneath the ungovernable.

 

He does not want what he thinks she wants which is to be assembled from brief measurements of her era’s preference, dictated in messages of convincing urgency arriving almost daily.

 

Wide puddles of crushed linseed with turpentine added to thin the tobacco-scented canvas falling from each side of her.

 

“What is natural?” he asks her – but really is asking all of nature, or what he thinks of as all of nature.

 

That final qualification – “what he thinks of as” – is a marvelous moment, identifying in its way just as all the negative definitions in the first paragraph (which, we note, occurs across what I might characterize as two prose stanzas) attempt to arrive at something solely by clearing out what it is not. This piece lets us feel all the differentials of language at work & they hover over differentials not only in desire (“what he thinks she wants”) but in time (“her era’s preference”), the material universe (“turpentine added to thin the tobacco-scented canvas”) & representation (“Not… Not… Not….”).

 

Triangular Pouches Rising Beneath the Ungovernable might be read (as I read it) as a parallel to the book’s title, even if maybe more so in my reversed mode. That’s why, I think, that line hovers out there like that, the way poems might be just such triangular pouches, our own lives that rich mess of underlying chaos we hear of only through the mediating remove of our senses. Fraser’s work demonstrates just how much can be gained by learning how fully to pay attention.



Monday, February 23, 2004

 

Kathleen Fraser’s Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling is composed of six different writing projects – I want to say it that way, precisely because I want to call attention to the similarity I see between Fraser’s process & that of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s, of whom I wrote last 13 November:

 

I sometimes imagine the writing of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge as being painterly, not because she lives with Richard Tuttle, but because her projects feel as tho they’re invented or constructed series complete in themselves, rather the way a solo exhibition at a major gallery would be, and that I sense she takes a long time between projects so that each will be visibly, palpably differentiated. Her sense of “project” thus seems very different from what I expect from writing or music, & that’s one of the values I take from her work.

 

I don’t know if Kathleen & Mei-mei were ever in a situation where they were able to influence one another on any level beyond reading each other’s work – what they pay attention to seems entirely different – but I do know that Fraser has also long been a poet who takes the visual arts very seriously.* Several of her books have either been collaborations with visual artists, such as Sam Francis or Mary Ann Hayden, or have included illustrations. The first sequence in Discrete Categories is dedicated “for Joan Mitchell, ferocity,” another “for Eva Hesse, further,” while a third carries an epigram from SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker on the subject of Willem DeKooning’s Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

From project to project, tho, Fraser has a great deal of range. The works here go from some well defined & carefully crafted series, both in prose & verse, to notebook pages that by their very nature are far more open-ended to an extremely brief one-act play.

 

In “Champs (fields) & between,” Fraser uses a most interesting coda effect with each of the six prose poems in the series, interesting precisely because of the way it sets up a second effect in the fourth poem. It’s the kind of detail that lets you see the poet thinking, structuring the work in front of her, the sort of thing that always fascinates me when I see in poetry.

 

Below each of the numbered, mostly single paragraph (indeed, mostly single sentence) poems, separated solely by space and a large dot at the left margin, Fraser reiterates a phrase or two from the text above. Thus the very first poem:

 

It was raining heavily and snowing farther up the road and she left for the appointment, both ahead of and behind her expectation, in spite of the visual impression of crashing cars and SUVs, swerving bodies in pain on the 6 o’clock news, again a swerving laid out to any random viewer, in this case herself a cinematic event to which she would gradually attach herself as she drove forward and slowly shifted gears through the lengthening

 

 

 

 

any random viewer, in this case

 

As a piece in itself, the first paragraph is a marvelous instance of a depiction told gently through a constantly changing perspective. That last word reverberates with its double meaning here – lengthening is exactly what this run-on sentence is doing. But it is the perspective of a viewer that gets called out in the coda, the randomness accentuated while its specificity is insisted upon. The coda reminds me of Benjamin’s distinction between a title – which names an entire work – and a caption – which highlights something specific within – this coda functions clearly as a caption. By itself, that would be enough to warrant its use in these works, but Fraser transforms our sense of perspective all over again with the third & fourth sections. The third is quite brief, but it is also the first one in which the lengthier main section is more than one sentence:

 

The air came down like rice. It scattered through unevenness and uneventfulness.

 

 

 

came down    unevenness

 

This coda by itself is worth noting, calling out as it does the elements that I suspect would be the ones most likely to be overlooked given the curiosity of the image & conscious clatter of distinction that occurs as the mind attempts to distinguish unevenness from uneventfulness. None of which prepares us for the opening of the project’s fourth piece, where the two sentence have now lengthened out into two “paragraphs,” if that is what you would call these long run-on sentences:

 

The air came down in its teacup shape of Japanese porcelain . . . .

 

Fraser has just set up our expectation that these coda will be backwards-referential, almost a variant of anaphor. But now it functions almost as a fulcrum as the mind sways into this new long sentence without letting go of that core verb phrase.

 

The physical sensation that accompanies this shift in perspective for a reader is as close to vertigo as I can get in a poem – it’s great just to feel the mind going through this process of focus-refocus as it reestablishes its equilibrium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* One might divide the world of writers into those who do & those who don’t. Peter Schjeldahl once asked me, only slightly tongue in cheek, “Don’t you think the only good ideas are in painting?” 



Sunday, February 22, 2004

 

I never knew Kay Boyle terribly well, but I had several friends at San Francisco State in the late ‘60s who were students of that school’s first (& at that time only) tenured female creative writing teacher. One day I was sitting with some of them in what was then the school’s cafeteria – long since torn down – when Boyle joined us & tossed down a photocopy manuscript in an envelope.

 

“What do you think of this?” she asked.

 

I read – aloud as I recall – the opening section of a poem picked at random:

 

Leaped at the caribou.

My son looked at the caribou.
The kangaroo leaped on the
fruit tree. I am a white
man and my children
are hungry
which is like paradise.
The doll is sleeping.
It lay down to creep into
the plate.
It was clean and flying.

 

“Sounds like the New York School meets surrealism,” I pronounced with the arrogance of instant judgment that only somebody on the shy side of 21 can get away with.

 

“Maybe,” she said, nonjudgmental. We read some more poems, passing the manuscript around among us. This book, Boyle informed us, had just been given something called the Frank O’Hara Award & was soon to be published by the prestigious Columbia University Press. They had asked Boyle for a blurb & she let anybody who asked know that she thought the Yale Younger Poets series, with which the O’Hara Award appeared to be competing, was perfectly moribund.* Perhaps the O’Hara Award was timed right to take over the “First Book Award” franchise, but was this the right choice, she wondered aloud?

 

Spring in This World of Poor Mutts was published in 1968 & I picked up the first paperback copy of the book I saw. I think I had been bothered by the superficiality of my own snap judgment, not so much that it was wrong, but rather that it wasn’t what was useful or important about those lines at all. Rather, it was the way in which they re-envisioned both the New York School and surrealism at the same time, almost effortlessly. Looking back on that first section of “Ho Ho Ho Caribou” now more than three dozen years later, I realize that I was responding to some exceptionally deft uses of sound, how the reiteration of the word caribou at the end of the first two lines sets me up after the second appearance of leaped to want to hear that synonym for reindeer again. Which means that I find fruit tree completely surprising, leaving it foregrounded in the imagination so that it echoes when I come upon a similar surprising word, paradise. Further, the root of leap appears again in sleeping & echoes in creep so forcefully that I hear the scramble of sounds in plate & then, in the last line, clean with great clarity. Logically, the lines & images don’t connect. Sonically, however, they exert an extraordinary sense of cohesion. The poem’s power is precisely the pull of those two levels in their different directions.

 

In theory, New York School poets don’t, or didn’t, make this kind of dramatic use of the ear in the poem. In addition, there were only a few instances of NY School writing that used such great leaps from image to image, thought to thought, as this – some pieces in Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath, Koch’s process driven When the Sun Tries to Go On & Berrigan’s similarly programmatic Sonnets, none of which looked at how architecturally those gaps look when used in a small space like these eleven lines. Ceravolo was doing something completely new & at the time it was all I could do just to recognize that fact.

 

So I was hooked. Literally, after that first encounter in the SF State cafeteria, I never let a Joe Ceravolo poem go by unread. I never got to meet the man directly, but later heard second hand that he had been bemused at a lengthy appreciation I had done of one of his poems as part of a larger project of looking at ways of talking about new modes of poetry. In part my use had been opportunistic – Peter Schjeldahl’s praise for poetry about which he claimed to have no idea what it was doing was provocative enough a hook on which to hang the article. But I doubt I would have put that kind of energy into it that I did had I not wanted to underscore the many ways in which Ceravolo’s poetry matters. It is precisely because he was such a natural at building complex structures that look on the surface as simple as pie that he was able to transcend each of his influences, giving them new depth & meaning by the ways in which he employed their strategies in his own poetry. It gave his poems a vibrancy that was special at the time he was writing them & whose uniqueness becomes even more apparent with every passing year.

 

 

 

 

* This was a none too subtle slam at recent Yale winner Jack Gilbert who was adjuncting at SF State at the time.



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