Saturday, March 26, 2005
It has been just under 20 years since the New Poetics Colloquium occurred in
Friday, March 25, 2005
This week I was on the road – in
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
I’ve heard of the press Tolling Elves before, tho I’m not sure where. Lollipop, the list of little press publications of the U.K., characterizes the press as “Edinburgh-based visual poetry ” tho the return address on the item I received is listed as London & I wouldn’t call what I have in hand visual poetry at all, being a sequence of 14 poems entitled Not Even by Kit Robinson, augmented with a centerpiece of one black & white photograph by Ericka McConnell (who also took the photo of Kit above). I’d be tempted to call this a chapbook, but it weighs – and I mean this literally – perhaps one-half ounce, being printed on two pages of the thinnest newsprint, 9.5 inches high, 8.5 inches wide, saddle stapled, but then folded into quarters which enables it to be folded into a clear plastic envelope, which I think is how I will end up storing my copy. It almost feels like a test: lets see just how ephemeral & ethereal a book might be.
The poems, however, are solid. They’re all short prose works, four of them a single paragraph long, the rest in a series of quite brief paragraphs. Viz “Evidence”:
The inhabitation of a weird head.
I’d like to go there with you.
A tracery of round, empty thought, put down in a moment, lost, even as it is found.
Persistence, evidence of persistence.
Like Hemingway in a duck blind, waiting in pre-dawn silence for something to show itself and the excitement of bringing something back. The kill.
There is nothing I would point to.
Superficially at least, this is a simple poem. Each of the last four paragraphs could be said to “demonstrate” or otherwise intersect with the title. The first two offer instead sort of a push-pull of desire. One might read the poem as a whole as the contemplation of what reference might mean for others, behind which lurks that old philosophical conundrum that Sartre once defined as Hell: Other people. It is not an accident here that in the most “concrete” of paragraphs, the critical noun – it occurs twice in the same sentence – turns out not to be duck but something. Redefined in the next sentence fragment – this is the only two sentence paragraph here – not by what it is or was, but only by what has happened to it: The kill.
Thus the nothing of the final paragraph is the direct descendant of the round, empty thought three paragraphs before. This is a text constructed around an absent center & it reminds me of nothing less than my favorite line from all of Shakespeare, the last words of Edgar’s soliloquy in the woods in the third act of King Lear: Edgar I nothing am. That sentence is constructed not syntactically, but rather as a series of concentric circles, beginning with the most exterior, ending with the most interior.
“Evidence” is even more tightly constructed than that soliloquy as a whole – it is, for example, hardly an accident that the final phrase focuses precisely on reference’s proposition. There are so many such moments here – one could write an entire paper on the choice of the word tracery & likewise argue that this poem more than anything is “about” persistence. How persistence gets us past the problem of immanence, the constantly discontinuous present: here here here. Persistence is what gets us all the way across that blank chasm between words to the next one & the next one after that – it empowers syntactic integration & even reference itself. It generates personality out of whole cloth. As I said, this is only superficially a simple poem.
Kit Robinson’s best poetry is almost always like this – utterly straightforward until you see that it is as complex & variegated as the
The space inside a lower-case e. You could set up shop there. We breathe through these holes, look out through these portals. Language clothes us in a foam. Its minute bubbles admit light, give off heat, combine to pack a wallop. We live in this vast complex built out of units comprising next to nothing. Cascading granularity moves, forward and to the right.
Language clothes us in a foam. That metaphor, that flight of fancy, counterbalances all this literal looking at the letters as they clatter past. Again we experience desire here as a push-pull dynamic. The result is that I experience that final phrase with enormous physical force – I am in fact feeling precisely what my own consciousness is doing. I am nowhere elsewhere.
This is why I’m always reading Kit Robinson’s work the instant I get it – he & Rae Armantrout & Robert Creeley are probably the only poets about whom I can say that & mean the word always literally. Not Even is the heaviest half-ounce of poetry I’ve ever encountered. And it makes me dizzy with joy.
Monday, March 21, 2005
After nearly a decade in Philadelphia, I finally went to the Rodin Museum last week, a relatively small building a few blocks down the Ben Franklin Parkway from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, only to remind myself of something I already knew – that sculpture, as such, leaves me profoundly unmoved.
Architecture fascinates me. I’ve burst into tears spontaneously in front of paintings by everyone from Delacroix to Pollock. But I cannot recall ever having a major emotional reaction when confronted by a three-dimensional free-standing work of art.
There is something about the trick of mass, especially when thrown into the referential palette of the human figure – especially the idealized, romanticized form of so many of Rodin’s works (look at the outsized hands & feet of the Burghers of Calais, all the better to express the humanity of their oncoming doom – even the naked figure of Balzac takes on the bathos of heroism here) – that lessens mass itself, as if the weight of so much grace were somehow hollow.
There was a bus tour of seniors shuffling about – perhaps 80 percent female, all of them seemingly tiny, whispering in hushed awe – they felt to me as lively & as welcome as a circus in this mausoleum. In contrast with Rodin’s symbolic monsters – at one point I tried to imagine all of his sculptures as giant chocolate Easter bunnies – I felt excited to be in even glancing contact with all this life. When they were hustled – to the degree that one can hustle a group whose average age must be 85 – back to their bus, the emptiness of the building was overwhelming.
Indeed, the most impressive thing about the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia itself is the building that houses it, designed by Paul Cret (who did many of the major public works around Philadelphia, from the Ben Franklin Bridge & the modern design of Rittenhouse Square to the arch at Valley Forge, as well as works elsewhere including the Detroit Institute for the Arts)and Jacques Gréber. A Beaux Art building, it has one large gallery with translucent skylight & a generous use of marble, surrounded by a half dozen smaller rooms & alcoves. The 125 Rodin works therein (there are two outside, including The Gates of Hell pictured at the top of this note & Rodin’s signature Thinker) are contained by their environment, which feels open & airy.
The museum presents the collection created by early film theater magnate Jules Mastbaum & Mastbaum’s project is worth contrasting with the Barnes Foundation collection a few miles west in Lower Merion – another Paul Cret building – that represents the artistic vision of cough syrup baron Albert Barnes. Barnes, who put his collection together during the same general period for less than $200,000, has an unparalleled set of Renoirs, Matisses, Gaugins, Van Goghs, Modiglianis, Picassos that are mounted chockablock next to African masks & spoon collections, a sense of gathering together that really represents an intellectual vision, quirky & brilliant. For his part, Mastbaum was a man with money & a little bit of taste who was purchasing works by the most established sculptor of the period. Where the Barnes Foundation represents a bricoleur’s mind, the Rodin Museum is all about consumption, even if it is tastefully done with an anachronistic “$3 donation suggested” collection box & a closet of a gift shop.
Most of the works in the museum were in fact not cast until Rodin himself had been dead for 8 or 9 years, cast from the plaster moulds that were made from Rodin’s clay prototypes – that’s one reason why there are so many examples of The Thinker around¹ – mostly at the Parisian foundry of Alexis Rudier, who worked directly with Rodin but who had himself passed away in 1897, the business being carried on by his heirs. Mastbaum’s collection not only has representations of all of Rodin’s major works, but Mastbaum himself paid to have the first & second instances of the “masterwork” Gates of Hell, designed originally for a museum that never got off the ground, cast. Gates is, at best, an unfinished hodge-podge, massive bronze doors that contain in miniature instances of many of Rodin’s major works, The Thinker included.
Looking at Rodin, the sculptor who comes to mind most immediately is Jeff Koons. Rodin’s romantic heroism is unironic but no less stylized & distancing than Koons’ in-your-face puppy dogs. Both use mass not to explore its dimension – a modernist project I could get behind – but for its symbolism & especially its ability to intimidate viewers. A morning with Rodin will make you appreciate Christo & Jeanne-Claude all the more.
¹ A second reason is a healthy market for Rodin forgeries.
Sunday, March 20, 2005
This short note has been deleted as of May 17, 2005, at the request of one of the individuals involved.