Friday, May 07, 2004

 

I have a love-hate relationship with the poetry of John Taggart. Always have. When I was a young poet in college, particularly while I was at Berkeley in 1970-71, Taggart was just enough years older to fill the role of someone with whom I could feel very competitive. His magazine Maps, with its impeccably published special issues on Olson, Duncan & Zukofsky, was everything my photocopy-&-stapled Tottel’s was not. He not only was paying attention to the very same poets whose work I most closely modeled my own after, Taggart’s poetry was philosophically informed & sophisticated in ways that I felt my own more phenomenological instincts would never allow me to become. And we had friends in common, notably David Melnick, who had known Taggart when both were at the University of Chicago, who let me know that Taggart was a really nice guy as well. I was riven with envy.

 

As it turned out, we’ve both had productive, albeit fairly different, careers as poets. Central to my own experience – and something I was just coming fully into contact with around 1970 – was the emergence of the scene that would become known as langpo, at first at Berkeley, then in San Francisco, and later more broadly. John took a job in Shippensburg, PA, 150 miles west of Philadelphia, 170 miles east of Pittsburgh, 100 miles north of Baltimore, a position from which he has only recently retired. Even the modest metroplex of Pennsylvania’s state capitol, Harrisburg, is some 40 miles hence.

 

That Martian anthropologist might thus see John & me as a type of social experiment – what would become of the writing of two poets with very similar influences if one were to insert himself into a thriving urban literary environment, the other to move in exactly the opposite direction, to become part of a daily community in which he alone was the only poet with whom he might have face-to-face contact? There are, of course, gaping flaws with such a comparison – John & I are also very different people, a fact that his engagement with an openly spiritual poetics makes evident to me every time I read his work. And as John’s work moved away from the Objectivist-inflected poetics of his earliest books toward a mode of ecstatic verbal performance dominated by reiteration as a device, I found it harder & harder to convince myself that I ought actually to read his work.

 

So I come to Pastorelles, Taggart’s new book from Flood Editions, with more than a little of my own baggage in tow. Do I then trust my gut instinct that this is the best book Taggart has ever written? I do, in fact, but you might want to more cautious as to what I mean when I write this.

 

Pastorelles is, in many ways, a “roots work,” Taggart going back to the bedrock instincts that first drove him as a poet – the same instincts that I’m most fond of in his writing. One result is that Pastorelles looks & feels far less like Taggart’s ecstatic drone poems & much more like his work from the 1970s, such To Construct A Clock, The Pyramid is a Pure Crystal, and Dodeka. Further, reading Pastorelles I sense a familiar model informing the structure of this volume, the books of Robert Duncan, especially Roots and Branches & Bending the Bow. In that model, the pastorelles of Taggart’s title, which are interspersed throughout the book, function not unlike Duncan’s own Passages, that open-ended longpoem that was itself modeled after Pound’s Cantos. Indeed, a pastorelle is a kind of canto, specifically a rural song, rural in this instance implying local. The echo from Duncan’s passages to Taggart’s pastorelles is so strong (as was, obviously, Duncan’s own echo from Pound) that one could be misled or at least misdirected by focusing too much on that fact alone. Still, it cannot be mere happenstance that at 60 John Taggart has constructed a work that ties together the whole of his literary life & that, in so doing, has gone back to first models. Like Duncan, he appears utterly unconcerned with the stigma of appearing “derivative.” 

 

Pastorelles is a term that also suggests a devotional aspect to such songs – I wonder if Taggart knows that there is an order of Paulist nuns called the Pastorelle Sisters? The entire concept of the pastorelle thus seems perfectly suited to take on this central role in Taggart’s poetry.

 

If there is a limitation to Taggart’s project, it lies in the relative sameness of the poems throughout the book. There is not, to my eye & ear at least, a compelling difference between a pastorelle & any of the other poems here. Consider, for example, how clearly defined both Duncan’s Passages & The Structure of Rime are within the framework of Roots and Branches, Bending the Bow or his post-hiatus Groundwork volumes. Passages generally follow an “open-field” form that has its roots in Pound’s Cantos, while Rime tends to be in prose. Other poems reflect other modes – the lyric, for example.

 

Taggart’s poems are mostly short – only a couple run more than one page, unless they’re divided into numbered sections in a mode that feels closer, say, to the serialism of Oppen than to that of Armantrout. The stanzas are short & the lines mostly also. There is, however, in Taggart a flatness to the line, almost a deadpan quality, that enables it to stretch out, sometimes to great effect:

 

Recliner shape in a corner of the room
red La-z-boy shape
left on the shape blue bathingsuit pulled down and pulled off.

 

That is, in its entirety, the third & final section of “Motel.” It has the almost Tourette’s-like twitch of the word shape, Taggart’s signature device, creating folds in what otherwise is an utterly simple & striking image. Everything here, it suggests, might be reducible to shape – decidedly a quirky stance given the emphasis accorded to color – yet it is not at all self-evident that the shapes are all that they seem – the final one in fact introduces a gesture, pulling down & off, that only resolves in the eye (or mind’s eye) into something other. One might even read this as a nude. It is in precisely the way shape disrupts, even distorts every line, that we find Taggart most clearly. This language is not reducible to speech, certainly not song &, in spite of the overlit photorealism of the scene, not image either. Rather, all three are refracted one against the other. The yield is much more than the sum of these parts.

 

The reading experience here thus is very different from the aural immersion of Taggart’s trance poems. Individual lines tend to be quiet, not because they are hushed or bland – they’re never that – but rather so that the ear will settle in to allow details to expand, to emerge, even bloom. Which results in simple poems that are best read only one or two at a time – try to read them all in one sitting & the richness will start to pancake back into that deadpan affect. Read slowly, however, Pastorelles is one of the finest books you will find all year.



Thursday, May 06, 2004

 

My last Rhodia Bloc notebook was dissolving in my 501s – one of the orange covers was already off – when I forgot all about it as I washed the trousers in with a load of darks last week. Now I can see its remnants atomized all over my collection of black t-shirts. Not a problem I have ever had with my Palm Pilot.

 

Җ         Җ         Җ

 

It looks as though I will be in Boston on the evening of June 22nd. If anybody would like to put together a reading, or even just dinner, I’m open to the idea.

 

Җ         Җ         Җ

 

I wasn’t going to blog today. I was supposed to be in Mechanicsburg for an all-day meeting, but yesterday afternoon my ear infection returned, which meant that the hearing on my right side departed again. Back to steroids &, hopefully later today, a trip to the specialist.



Wednesday, May 05, 2004

 

Tom Orange had an interesting follow-on question to something I wrote a couple of weeks ago. I thought I would pose the question here, tho I might not answer it myself for awhile.

 

hi ron,

 

you wrote on wednesday april 14 that "it simply is impossible for even the most responsible or compulsive reader to try & keep up, truly keep up, with the state of post-avant writing. At some point, something is going to have to give, people will & do make choices & out of those choices, I would venture, new, further cracks in the landscape must appear."

 

i'm intrigued not only by the sense of inundation that you express here and that i often feel as well, but also by the particular way you've opened up a space for thinking further about the issue here. you went on in your post to sketch out the "new, further cracks in the landscape" that you see possibly appearing in the future, so rather than take that up i'd prefer to press you a bit further for the moment on the other portion of the quote i excerpted from that day's blog.

 

your phrase "at some point," for example, makes me wonder how soon. when you say "something is going to have to give," i wonder what that something is and how you think it might give or have to give. and your assertion that "people will & do make choices" makes me wonder what kinds of choices you see people (yourself included) making.

 

i assume with this third point we're talking about what to read and what not to read. what guides your choices along those lines? that's obviously a huge question and maybe at some level can't be articulated beyond a kind of affective or gut-level "i just felt like reading X." so maybe the more discussable question is, what is going to have to give and how?

 

i've been thinking lately about robert duncan's decision to stop publishing in 1968 after bending the bow, and his preface to that book as a most remarkable statement of poetics in a time of war. and i'm thinking of bob kaufman's long periods of silence. i'm not automatically thinking of duncan and kaufman as models that should or ought to be followed at the present moment and this time of permanent war: these are obviously personal decisions these poets made and could never be proper to all poets at all times.

 

maybe another way at this is to pose wcw's question again, and it's one that i know you have posed on occasion before as well: what about all this writing?

 

if we acknowledge that it can't all be read, then what is it all for? is it enough simply that it exists, to be read now or at some point in the future or not? it the making, doing, producing of it in and of itself enough?

 

musingly,

tom



Tuesday, May 04, 2004

 

Iowa born Mytili Jagannathan grew up in West Virginia and has degrees from Brandeis & Penn. Habenicht Press published her first book, Acts. The label on her vitrine in the museum last week was literally “R is for Rosenbach.”

 

aRticle

 

 

some sold their secrets

to such far advanced eyes

 

three hundred lumens for a

night quiz for intimates

 

the head of a reptile

under a pillow

 

who trained for

the race to look

 

to look like

she could

 

kindle a riot, embroidering

more room for living

 

megawatt monsters

in a Rorshach

for rulers

 

dress as a guest

but play an invader

 

rattle of lace

and milk of steel

 

and in and out of weeks and

almost over a year

 

one’s crime’s in

one’s crib, clearly

 

some will add to these

 

when the ocean

was churned

the zoo was born

 

and what rose was red

as a present of nectar

 

for ransom of

unkept things



Monday, May 03, 2004

 

Bob Perelman was a young poet living in Cambridge, MA, when he first sent me a copy of Hills #2, which included work by Steve Benson, Bob Grenier, Michael Waltuch, Anselm Hollo, Josephine Clare & Perelman himself, among others, in addition to a cover by Francie Shaw. That was about 30 years ago. Since then, we’ve lived in the same community on both coasts, to my great benefit. In addition to his own poetry & critical writing, Perelman will always be known as the person who started the San Francisco’s poets’ talks series in his Folsom Street loft space – the manifestation of poetry, or at least language poetry, having a critical dimension began literally in his living room. Later this year, Granary Books will issue Playing Bodies, Perelman’s collaboration with Shaw. Here is Perelman’s contribution to the Rosenbach Alphabet:

 

Standing beside my assigned vitrine on a windless day in special collections, I heard Jack Spicer and Gertrude Stein. Like me, they’d been drawn by the letter B.

 

Actually, Spicer had been drawn by the B-things, a baseball Joe DiMaggio signed to Marianne Moore, a drawing of the musketball that killed Lord Nelson, a postcard of the children’s ball, a scrap of gallantry George Washington addressed to the local belles.

 

Spicer hated that these things all had prior being. He said, “God is a big white baseball that has nothing to do but go in a curve or a straight line. . . . I often thought of praying to him but could not stand the thought of that big, white, round, omnipotent bastard.” Gertrude Stein stuck up for omnipotence, as why ever not, saying, “Let her be let her let her let her be let her be let her be let her be shy let her be let her be let her try.”

 

So God, who was more on Stein’s side than Spicer’s–unfair, but what are you going to do?–did, activated by Stein, try. She tried, and Stein became Stein. It was a closed system, like the Republican Party. Only a lot more interesting.

 

Let be be the finale of seem, I heard someone say.

Let seem seem the beginning of be, I repeated.

 

How can I ever learn my lines when they keep changing? In the vitrine nothing moved. At least we’d crossed the ecliptic & the days were getting longer. This one in particular. But there’s more than one. There’s every one apparently. Against which small vitrineloads of things fished out of the time stream. Collected, all turbulence deflected, cathected, if that’s how you feel about each other.

 

So. B. It begins. What does? Not this. This has already begun. Something, then. The poem. How can a poem begin in the middle of a sound stream? Form, that’s how. It makes being a ball, baseball, musketball, children’s ball where they’re dressed like adults because games are serious. Just ask Joe, though he always dressed like a special child to play his game. If he was by himself he’d say, “Games are games,” but he’s got Marianne Moore to say it another way or two, “since he who gives quickly gives twice / in nothing so much as in a letter.” Two times, because B is 2nd, and being is, too. First comes everything. Counted as one, it’s anything, any one thing, a B. Just B, that’s all. Never argue with the alphabet.



Sunday, May 02, 2004

 

During her reading at the Rosenbach, Susan Stewart used hand signals literally to indicate the presence of virgules & parentheses. Afterwards, she suggested that she would never do that “in a real reading,” a phrase that caught my attention. Susan Stewart most recently won the National Books Critic Circle Award for Poetry for Columbarium. In the fall, she will begin teaching at Princeton.

 

A constant of gravitation

 

the G

is liminal / like a door

 

(on one side, enclosure)

on the other / eternity

 

the knock in the night / a fury

 

awakens the sleepers / unto nothing

yet (silence)

 

footsteps recede /

like the furious dead

 

to silent night

unbalanced / a jury

 

(or the glad all at once

into happy roar)

 

unbalanced / like a door

 

on one side receding

(on the other meeting)

 

like call / and response

 

without response (like

greeting)

 

like keening / like

cleaving

 

Into the heaven of heavens

I presumed an earthly guest

 

who showed up late (as monster as divine)

 

Gone from the glass was the ghost of a god

 

the guest of a chance / not yet the host.



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