Friday, December 31, 2004
Some horror is beyond words. Watching the news footage this past week from South Asia, the Indian Ocean & Horn of Africa has been like that, a scale of devastation that goes further than our language can carry us. When you see bulldozers simply pushing corpses into mass graves, it is impossible to recall what a catastrophe each & every death must be. This is an instant in which numbers serve only to diminish what has happened – indeed, as promised, they numb us.
One year ago to the day before the tsunamis struck, 70 percent of the Iranian mud city of Bam, which is what you see in the photo above, many of whose buildings were as much as 1800 years old, was leveled by a quake. The death toll of 28,000 amounted to one third of the population. If you’ve forgotten this disaster, you’re not alone – according to Thursday’s New York Times, “Victims … are still living in tents because aid, including ours, has not materialized in the amounts pledged.”
The major difference between Bam & the tsunamis is not in the numbers, nor is it in the wide swath of devastation – tho both of these are very real – but in the presence of cameras & the worldwide communications grid. The Tangshan, China, earthquake of July 27, 1976, occurred during my lifetime – the official death toll was 255,000 but, according the U.S. Geological Survey, estimates of actual fatalities went as high as 655,000 people. Until I saw this mentioned in a sidebar to one of the tsunami articles this week, I don’t recall ever hearing about this.
In contrast, the first our family heard of the 9.0 quake off the coast of Sumatra was from a web buddy of my boys who reported feeling it in his hometown of Chennai, an Indian city most Americans still know by its old colonial name of Madras. Once we realized what this was, there were some anxious hours until the friend reported that his neighborhood had been spared, tho Chennai had a couple of hundred fatalities.
How ironic that, as camcorder shots of tidal surges over the tops of resort hotels filled the screens of the cable news channels, Susan Sontag, who made Walter Benjamin’s media theories safe for masses of NYRB readers & was never one to understate a point, lay dying of cancer. Her passing was a dismal last gesture to what has been, at least in terms of public life, an almost unrelievably dreadful year. The election, the Iraqi debacle, genocide in Darfur and now the tsunami – 2004 has been one long trough of despair.
The world of poetry itself took more than its share of losses in 2004. Two in particular stand out, because they were personal friends as well as great writers. Gil Ott & Jackson Mac Low shared an activist’s orientation to politics & a love of performance that made their readings events never to be missed. Each was more interested in peace & justice than they were in their own poetry – and that commitment strengthened their writing. A really good resolution for 2005 would be to try to live as wisely & bravely as either one of them.
Thursday, December 30, 2004
Susan Minot wrote the screenplay to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. Best known perhaps as the “breakthrough” role for Liv (daughter-of-Steve) Tyler, this film does an unparalleled job of recreating the feel of an artist’s life, as the late Donal McCann portrays a successful sculptor who is able financially to surround himself with the people & projects he loves. The film also treats an abstraction – virginity – as if it were a being, a member of the cast. You don’t have to agree with this point-of-view to marvel at how well it’s carried off. And I recall being surprised to discover that this film, which at some level is certainly a middle-aged male fantasy, was scripted by a woman, even as Bertolucci is credited with the “story.”
So when I read a rave review of a novel by Minot in the New York Times, I made a mental note to pick the book up & read it. Rapture was already in paperback by the time I acted on my impulse, but there’s often a gap on my part between idea & action. It took me another year to get around to actually reading the volume. It’s one of those projects that makes you furrow your brow & scrunch your nose. Rapture is the polar opposite of Stealing Beauty in that it’s intellectually stimulating, but with enormous gaps in the execution.
The premise of this novel is that it’s the tale of two lovers – with a third sort of hovering in the shadows – told through their thoughts as one, Kay, gives the other, Benjamin, a blowjob. That literally is the entire book. The back-story of the pair is that Benjamin is a struggling film director on whose film Kay once worked. They had an affair primarily while shooting in Mexico but at the time Benjamin was engaged to his girlfriend of eleven years, Vanessa. The affair fell apart because Benjamin was unwilling to abandon Vanessa for Kay. Now, quite some time later, Benjamin has left Vanessa & runs into Kay. One thing leads another & they’re in Kay’s bed for the first time in over a year. What Kay doesn’t know is that Benjamin has plans to see Vanessa later that same day.
The concept of the tale drawn out through reflection during an extremely contained frame story has been done before. Well before Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine shoe-horned a novel into a character’s ascending an escalator on his way to buy shoe laces, Wright Morris’ Field of Vision thrust a novel’s worth of thoughts into the minds of a few spectators watching a bullfight. One might even blame Laurence Sterne, whose “autobiography” of Tristram Shandy is perpetually delayed through digression, for begetting this trend of seeking plotless prose through cutesy narrative frames. Eventually someone will manage to cast an entire picaresque into a stifled yawn. It’s all just a question of scale.
At one level, Minot’s book is a part of the new, spare, postmodern prose fiction, a kin to the work of David Markson & Carole Maso – maybe your surname has to begin with an M to play in this genre – but on another level, Rapture feels much more targeted towards the women’s book club market than either of those, a little too frisky for Oprah perhaps, but not really of a different order. This is really all about the construction of the female character, the one in this book we are primarily supposed to “care about.”
A lot of that has to do with Benjamin, who is far more of an abstraction here than was Liv Tyler’s virginity in Stealing Beauty. For Rapture really to work, you have to buy Benjamin as character & he feels like a cardboard cut-out to me. In the constant narrative flipping betwixt characters – it amounts to an interior “he said / she said” – Benjamin’s simply not believable as a male receiving oral sex. Whether she is or not, I suspect, may depend on the gender of the reader, tho there are aspects to Kay’s relationship to fellatio that struck me as closer to male fantasy than Benjamin’s. It is she, after all, who has positioned herself so that Benjamin has nothing to do but lie there, passive as a blank sheet of paper. And it is she who experiences the “rapture” of the title without the slightest thought of reciprocity. Indeed, Kay wants to give sex, not have sex, & in that distinction lies a good part of the dynamics of this book.
I wrote just a couple of weeks ago about the problem of character in Walter Mosley’s Walkin’ the Dog. The principle difference between Socrates Fortlow & Benjamin, as a writing project, is that Fortlow is woven around a point of opacity – a core of residual anger – that renders him something of a mystery even to himself. Benjamin has no such core, no moment of opacity whatsoever. If he is opaque to anyone, it is only to Kay. Otherwise, he is every “nice-guy / bad-boyfriend” who ever lived.
Lucy, the Liv Tyler character in Stealing Beauty¹, at least has her virginity (which she herself – since she can’t know it, never having known its opposite or absence – displaces onto a search for the father her mother never named², who just turns out to be . . .). But the absence of any opacity on the part of Benjamin ultimately equals an absence of materiality, depth, credibility. Let me give a contrast that will foreground the difference: much of what is so compelling about the female narrator in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is not that she’s convinced that she may be the only person left alive on the planet, but that she never really notices this – it’s a fact, not a problem. You could construct a novel around just such a blind spot, as Markson did.
Kathy Acker was right all those years ago in treating characterization as an – possibly the – interesting problem in fiction. Instead of working upwards syntactically & grammatically, as language itself does, the schemata of fictive frames refer to a posited, projected universe constructed around these Frankenstein creatures we call characters. Our experience of cohesive writing is thus projected onto a world that is, by inference, equally coherent. Building such constructions, however, requires much more than just names, facts, even attitudes. At the absolute core of another person lies, if nothing else, our experience of an Other, something impenetrable even in the act of penetration. There is a lot to be said about the problems of writing “in the voice of” another gender, race, class or age. Benjamin’s problem, tho, is not that he’s like your old lover. He’s really a lot more like Oakland. At least in Gertrude Stein’s figure for my lovely childhood city about the artificial lake, there’s no there there. Which renders a lot that happens in Susan Minot’s Rapture difficult to swallow.
¹ The film’s title in Italian, Io ballo da sola, translates literally into “I dance alone.” I’ve wondered just how different that film might seem had I thought of it as such when I first saw it eight years ago.
² Which just happens to mimic Ms. Tyler’s relationship with her own father, as every media profile ever written on her has treated as the major narrative of her life.
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
I laughed – guffawed actually – when I first opened the carton that brought David McAleavey’s Huge Haiku to my door. At 289 poems, it’s one of the heaviest literal manuscripts I’ve had in hand in some time. 289 is of course seventeen sets of 17 poems each. Each of which has 17 lines & each line 17 syllables. A book therefore of 83,521 syllables organized by fives & sevens – each line has not one but two pauses – hence five syllables, seven syllables, and then again five – each poem is gathered into stanzas of five, seven & five lines.
Huge Haiku indeed. Incredibly obsessive, exceptionally detailed haiku might be a more exact description. Imagine 80 Flowers exfoliating over a far greater terrain, growing wild in fact with a sense of its own range. Yet not without self-knowledge. “Blunt architecture” is both the first title and first phrase of the opening poem, a figure that might capture the project itself at hand, recount something as simple as a deck addition to a home & reverberate not-so-coincidentally with the profession of the poet’s father.
I’ve been reading David McAleavey’s work for over 30 years, since we first met at Berkeley. Tho he’s published four books over that period, he’s focused as much on his work as a teacher and may be best known to readers here – at least by folks outside of the DC area or who are not Oppen scholars, as such – for having been the editorial hand behind the Ithaca House run in the early 1970s that included first or second books by yours truly, Bob Perelman, Ray DiPalma, David Melnick & others.
When I first met him through Occident editor Lewis Dolinsky, McAleavey was an obviously brilliant grad student tho not yet well- read beyond the standard undergraduate fare in American poetry. Melnick & I heaped volumes of the New Americans on him – he in turn taught me to play chess (tho I suspect he would still obliterate me in about four moves if we sat down at a board today). After leaving Berkeley for Cornell, he turned to Oppen on his own. Reading these non-haiku haiku – you can see several samples here and another here – I realize that there is something deeply simpatico between the two poets I hadn’t understood before. A sense of ethics as the heart of poetry that often plays itself out around figures of literal handcrafts.
These poems to my ear are at their best at their most dense – I think I would say this of almost any poet – and yet, not unlike Bob Perelman, McAleavey often refuses that final step off the springboard into the level of opacity we associate, say, with something like 80 Flowers out of an ethical commitment both to content & reader. This sometimes gives the haiku a thematic center that puts individual pieces again midway betwixt Oppen & (of all things) Berryman’s Dream Songs, the poetry McAleavey was most enthusiastic about when first I met him. This may, in fact, be the first work influenced by Berryman that I can think of that takes that formal impulse forward, precisely because it recognizes these disparate connections. There is a world in which Berryman & Zukofsky make perfect sense together – and this pretty much is it.
I’ve sometimes accused McAleavey of going out of his way to keep his poetry a secret – he seems quite resolute in his disinterest in the hustle associated with a lit’ry career – yet with a Chax Press edition of Huge Haiku coming sometime in the new year, this may well change at last & for the better for us all. McAleavey’s blunt architecture is filled with riches for us all.
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
For the second Christmas in a row, David Shapiro has spent at least part of the day reading my blog & sending me a series of notes. I don’t know if he thinks of these missives as a present to me, but that certainly is how I experience the generosity of such close reading. He took, for example, Karri Kokko’s question about writing poetry backwards to think about the direction of time in the arts altogether.
Backwards, reverse, inversion, perversion, subversion: I have been intrigued with this. Jung mentioned he learned Ulysses by reading it backwards. Of course, that is., in a sense, how all generic forms are read. At the beginning of Hamlet, say, we know revenger's tragedies end with death. We know, as Gertrude Stein once joked about drama, but a serious joke, more than the characters know. That is the strangeness of Godard's remark. We have a beginning, middle and ending, but not in that order. But is it a beginning if it comes at the end? For example, how many civilizations open meals with "dessert" or wear their shoes on their head. And if shoes are worn on the head, do they become, after all, a hat? It's not just an issue of the surprising end, but the way to make an entrance an exit, a window a defenestration.
Cut-up techniques are just one more physical way to understand this. (And in painting, do we read right to left or left to right – Tuttle says he and Agnes Martin thought right-to-left was a gender-specific issue, which I doubt.) In my architecture-poetry classes, I am always aware of young spatial analysts who, when they are free to translate say the famous Wang Wei go by diagonals and inversions. Musicians do this, but can one warm up at the end of the piece? But that is why Koch used to warn us not to warm-up at the beginning, like poor jazz?
Berrigan intrigued Johns when he systematically re-arranged a sonnet, so that it becomes coherent upon reassembling. But doesn't Proust come close to this everywhere, when the past rearranges the present, as in jealousy in extremis? The sign that you have just decoded, or perhaps misread, changes the past.
Anyway, Irreversible the new movie begins with revenge and slowly turns to a tranquil beginning, which ends the film in rotating calm. The artificiality seen in poor rhymers (the sins of rhymes) or the idiot formalists who can't really do their metrics, is that they are forced to go backwards in a clumsy way? That's why Graves made his idealist remark about not writing a sonnet until you're half into it. But that's not enough. Anyway, through-analysis in music means that every great fugue is often composed backwards.
I read much literature backwards, a habit from the Hebrew misaligned with English. But also because I KNOW that Paradise Lost comes first, as in Proust. It upsets my son. It always reminds me of the canonic joke of Roussel: Begin with the first page and end with the last. That suggests the reader is free not to do that.
I used to find film coercive in my youth, because I could not stop it easily. Video has given us many directions, and I love teaching film only now when I can constantly stop, redesign the film, etc.
So one has a funny last freedom, the model of simultaneous grids in Jakobson. For Jakobson the secret of poetry is the way the two axes come together and make every line in a poem the partner as it were of every other., There is no way out – the last line of a Shakespearean couplet, say, harps and re-harps and changes the first line. That is the bizarre super-reader super-patterning problem that Riffaterre and others picked up as a putatively bad or good infinite in poetry. Just as you say the readers of your work often remember things you don't, and presumably any great critic will find patterns that are "there" but not necessarily designedly dropped.
And in such a way, the writer's death poem or death, for example, influences our reading of the life or myth. This has been said over and over about the death of O’Hara, which transfigures poems. Koch’s Cloud poem, at the end or near the end of his life, thus gets re-read from the perspective of the end-as-present. That is the banality of much of the readings of Plath, where the suicide is seen "everywhere." It's the reason I rejected a Kimball question about whether I always wrote the same poem. There are ways in which any critic can reduce a poet from development to stasis. Borges loved to accept this as a fiction of time never changing.
Koch's best assignment was to write a story that could be read 4 ways. Keith Cohen delighted in this assignment. I found it merely ingenious. But it is a good way to remember how difficult it is to judge or read a novel, a poem, music., A bright student once told me that music was never really heard once. One can't judge a piece of music, until the end and the beginning are learnt at once., Thus, writing backwards or in reverse is perhaps too mechanical an operation about the operations of time.
Mozart in his rondos builds into the music the repetition that makes ecstatic the lack of difference between beginning and end, like the great paintings of Johns in 'cross-hatchings that always suggest a coming together in folds. Jasper has been one of the most ingenious painters of the problem of time, voice, and folds. That's why he titles one folded work: Corpse and Mirror.
A lot of my assignments in classes since l970 have been about folding a poem forwards and backwards.
I also believe that the charm of most haiku is reduced when translators are not very careful about how often the sudden image comes first or last but possibly reversed from the fate of attention?
What is the beginning of a painting?
How does a poem end with the proper sense of beginning?
All these have been exactly problems in Stein. And my sequences were one way, I hoped, to escape a single tempo. I would write for a year and then carefully derange structures until they represented the doubt I felt about objects and time.
The time in architecture, the time of circulation and vision often trumped in photography, but also illuminated by great architectural photographs, is the space of the sequence in Corbusier, always revising his photographs and painting his buildings.
In sculpture, what is the time of a sculpture? I asked Fairfield Porter: can you paint in the past tense?
Bye, just a hello -
Monday, December 27, 2004
It was 20 years ago next summer that the Vancouver poetry conference took place, a great event that resonates still in this participant’s mind. Afterwards, I was talking with Colin Browne, the poet & filmmaker who did much of the organizing, trying to assess the differences between U.S. & Canadian poetics at that (pre-Internet) juncture in history. “Your monsters are our monsters,” was Browne’s reply, meaning that any young Canadian poet had to negotiate his or her own relationship to the work (and influence) of Pound, Williams, Olson, Spicer, Duncan, O’Hara, Creeley, Ginsberg & the like. But, in fact, that wasn’t entirely accurate, because there were major Canadian poets – Earl Birney, Louis Dudek, to name two – who had made virtually no dent south of the border. I had already had a shock discovering the poetry of Gerry Shikatani, a wonderful writer whose work I’d never heard of previously. How could somebody that good, even half that good, stay a secret here in the United States?
Now I have a new book in my hands from Mark Truscott & I’m having something very much like a parallel reaction. Said Like Reeds or Things is simply terrific – why isn’t Truscott a household name in my house at least? Well, it’s his first book for one thing – but getting one’s first book from a publisher like Coach House Press is itself a noteworthy accomplishment. The end matter in the volume indicates that the book was edited by Jay Millar, a well-known & prolific Canadian poet, copy-edited by Alana Wilcox, & designed by Darren Wershler-Henry, another of Canada’s first-rate post-avant writers (who, incidentally, did a tremendous job with this volume). Truscott lives up to the effort. His poems are spare, sometimes to the brink of a Zukofsky or Grenier:
They’re also witty in ways both complex & subtle:
Knowing he’s dead, Glenn Gould plays Schoenberg.
Knowing he’s dead, Glenn Gould plays Schoenberg.
The volume is composed in three movements. The first, from which the two above were taken, is the title sequence & is the longest. The second, It’s Snowing, consists of longer (tho never entirely long) poems:
Inside hollow tire sounds I’m
careful with sentences
Who isn’t knocking?
mechanisms built into
The dryer isn’t
lonely any more
No one screws with
this operating system
The light on
in and out
This is a quiet, carefully modulated poetry – Truscott obviously hears the changes in vowels & consonants very exactly and trusts the reader to do likewise. In a way, a longer poem like “Snow” reminds me a little of Devin Johnston, a writer with similar values (I wonder if they’ve ever read one another), tho Truscott’s off-kilter sense of humor comes a tad closer to someone like Graham Foust. However, I recall that my positive review of Johnston’s work drew an anonymous flame in the (currently dysfunctional) Squawkbox commentaries – not everyone has a good ear. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Truscott’s readers also divide between those who appreciate subtlety (and who thus like this work enormously) and those who flat out don’t get it.
The book’s third section, It Was, would surely be the test. It’s untitled pieces are far more spare even than the works of the first section:
It was hot I saw.
This poem works if – and possibly only if – you recognize how the last five letters of the poem scramble the first five. On top of this, layer in the epistemological question of seeing and heat. It’s not a simple poem, but like all miniaturists, Truscott magnifies the most minute details dramatically. Some people will get it, but just as some folks find the music of Erik Satie boring, it’s going to lose anyone who really can’t read at that level of discrimination. Truscott doesn’t stop there, either. Consider
Is it conceivable that a nature poetry – for that’s what this is, with Truscott very much being one to include language in his understanding of nature – this spare? To appreciate the one-word poem as poetry means to be able to see & hear the sensuality of soft consonants aligned with a pair of vowels that create a single, clear tone.
Reading these poems, thinking about them, typing them up here excites me – this book as a whole makes me excited about poetry & all its possibility. I can’t think of a better accomplishment for a volume of verse.
Sunday, December 26, 2004
MLA Off-Site Poetry Reading
Wednesday, December 29, 2004,
1315 Cherry St., 4th floor
free and open to the public
At 2 minutes per reader,
the list as it stands right now:
· Will Alexander
· Kazim Ali
· Rae Armantrout
· Herman Beavers
· Charles Bernstein
· David Buuck
· Louis Cabri
· C.A. Conrad
· Brent Cunningham
· Michael Davidson
· Tom Devaney
· Linh Dinh
· Greg Djanikian
· Rachel Blau DuPlessis
· Patrick Durgin
· Norman Finkelstein
· Kristin Gallagher
· C.S. Giscombe
· Loren Goodman
· Bill Howe
· Jessica Lowenthal
· Pattie McCarthy
· Chris McCreary
· Jenn McCreary
· Mark McMorris
· Mike Magee
· Camille Martin
· Steve McCaffery
· Laura Moriarty
· Eileen Myles
· Jena Osman
· Bob Perelman
· Ethel Rackin
· Kathy Lou Schultz
· Frank Sherlock
· Ron Silliman
· Juliana Spahr
· Chris Stroffolino
· Kevin Varone
· Mark Wallace
· Barrett Watten
For more information: