Saturday, July 02, 2005

 

Ralph Stanley had heart surgery last Monday.

Stanley’s signature song has the chorus,

O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year

with which we concur, heartily.

& Chet Helms passed away. Not even for the first time.



Friday, July 01, 2005

 

From my perspective, there are two negatives to the concept of the School of Quietude, the idea of an aesthetically & culturally conservative (and ultimately Anglophiliac) literary movement that I’ve adapted from the correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe. One is that it lumps together too crudely all manner of conservative-to-outright-reactionary writing, without sufficient regard to the subtleties therein. But the more serious problem lies within Poe’s term itself, which could be misread as suggesting that quietness itself is not an appropriate register for writing. There are, in fact, many quiet poets who are (a) excellent writers and (b) not at all quietudinous, so to speak. I’ve noted both Tom Meyer & Devin Johnston as instances of this circumstance in the past. But perhaps the best example is the poetry of Merrill Gilfillan.

I’ve praised Gilfillan here before, so it should not come as much surprise to find out that I think of the man as the pre-eminent nature writer of my generation, indeed since Thoreau. The key to this, whether in his poetry or in his essays, lies in the specificity of Gilfillan’s language. He is principally a descriptive poet, even when it is all the many other little things kicked up by his description that ultimately catches our eye:

Morning with Chokecherries

Douse them, wet
they shine like brilliant
caviar (dust devils whirling,
cranes circling, babies
laughing, halfmoon sailing,
ravens, old station wagons
circling and circling), set
them in the sun.

Or:

Smoke Today

To the west
just off that lightning-rod
ridge, a lazy gray
smoke curl, a simple up

and out, left
to right.
Burning off
the tumbleweeds, burning off
piranha ticks.

It makes me long
for a Lucky Strike.

Early today, far above
faroff Prairie Dog Creek,
a mile-long ribbon

flowed elegantly east,
undulant fretless umber
almost not quite really there –
burning off the buckaroo

wallpaper. It made me dream
of a Gauloise blue.

Even as Gilfillan creates a context in which undulant fretless umber does not sound excessively lush & almost not quite really there remains articulate in all its qualifications, Gilfillan yokes together two disparate domains, one that of the landscape of northern Wyoming, the other the cultural imagery of tobacco brands, both brands retro, one almost comically exotic. It’s a touch not unlike the parallel Gilfillan draws in the first poem between cranes (whooping or sandhill, the reader wants to ask) & station wagons.

Both of these poems are to be found in Undanceable, just out from Flood Editions. They are about as noisy as Gilfillan gets. Much quieter are the six serial poems here, ranging from four to a dozen pages, perhaps because they can circumambulate their ostensible subject (or, in the case of “Six Songs,” radiate outward from the idea of the title). They don’t much need to go anywhere, closure being an option more than a necessity, the presentness of everything – word, image, intellection – being always the about in What’s this about. Thus there is no forced drama hidden in the first section of “Yampa Crows at Yampa Evening,” Yampa itself the name of a river & valley in Gilfillan’s adopted state of Colorado:

Subject pilfered,
lightly repainted: poetry
as subtlest of craws: crows

at sundown
fine print for omnivores.

They sit on old boxcars –

“Alabama State Docks/
Port of
Mobile” – doors
wide open, see right through:

sand bar, willows, Yampa,
alders, foothills, half-lit peaks:
the
Williams Fork Range.

Gilfillan’s vocabulary, a la Forrest Gander, keeps me close to a dictionary when reading him. In the nine sections of “Yampa Crows,” I find cecropia, firn, feuille mort, alpenglow.

Poetry as meditative as this is, in its own way, as “pure” or “extreme” or “abstract” (take your pick) as Clark Coolidge’s Polaroid or The Maintains. Tho, of course, it is not abstract in the slightest & abjures extremism. I could read such writing without limit, and with total pleasure at all points, which is pretty much what reading’s all about. Undanceable makes for terrific music.

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Thursday, June 30, 2005

 

Alli Warren

 

K. Silem Mohammad has an extravagant mini-review of Alli Warren’s Hounds, a chapbook that arrived recently with a publication date – Spring 2005 – but no identifiable publisher: “Contact Alli Warren immediately and force her to sell you a copy. It is worth a thousand dollars,” says Kasey. Jack Kimball & Jordan Davis have also taken note. I’m here to agree.

The poem “Unitarian” is dedicated to Robert Creeley & has an epigram from Steve Benson: When we love each other the war ends.

With bees exhumed
what possibilities therestill

foreheads / are public
         space upon which you kiss
the speaker

Court the willing

notoriously hard
to impress – bone
fragments in the mouth

                    the air is
         not breath-
able here
though I can see
         women crawling out
crawdad infested
oceans, remnants of a few
apple turnovers swishing
about their guts

Not to mention words

Dead In Texas

There are not homes there
are not hands
to warm and feed there
are syllables which the
night surrounds

Pigeons up
in the boughs
tracing outsides
footing treetops
         oxygen feed
figure across
a cross – walk
writhing on the concrete

”Mourning cloaks the world”

“I drove my car into a tree”

There was
         an ant
on the table
         I put out
the light with
         a small finger

This poem – and several others in this short book – have me rethinking how younger poets are making use of abstraction & figuration. Because at one level, this poem & most of the others here, could be characterized as an abstract lyric. But it operates on a very different level than most other poems I would use that phrase around. Typically, such poems focus in on phrase or line & tend to follow an overall aesthetic, often one that harkens back to roots in the New York School (and if not the NY School of Ashbery or O’Hara exactly, then at least the 2nd gen. one, say, of a Bill Berkson, adapting Ashbery’s palette to the lyric). Here, however, we find that abstraction has shifted toward a higher level – the stanza – and that almost every stanza here approaches its language from a different perspective. Maybe this is how a poem would appropriate the part:whole sensibility of a David Salle. But that still seems too NY Schoolish to capture what Warren is up to. Her line is clean & smooth as an Objectivist – indeed, one of the poems here appropriates one of Oppen’s titles, while linebreaks in more than a few places echo Black Mountain. Overall, the result is that these poems offer an extraordinary range as if she’s absorbed all the poetry of the past half century & comfortably made it her own. I knew that I trusted this poem by the end of its second line, the way each line fell so distinctly on an eye-catching word: exhumed / therestill. Yet the next stanza takes me in a completely different direction & the third – a one-line stanza – into an altogether different direction. Throughout, I never lose a sense of the whole here – there isn’t anything scattergun to this technique – so I’m hit especially hard when this turns, in its own way, into an elegy (and I hope you caught the echo of Creeley’s “I Know a Man” in “night surrounds”).

In particular, I love what Warren is doing with the line here – she has a confidence with it that is rare. Consider that enjambment in the fourth stanza between bone & fragments, the reiterations of there in the eighth, or the way she doesn’t signal the relationship between table & I put out in the final stanza, enabling light to allude at least partly back to ant. A poet who can do all this in just two pages can, frankly, do anything.

Warren appears to have published two earlier chapbooks, one of which, Yoke, can be downloaded in PDF format from Faux Press’ list of e-books, the other of which, Schema, contains poems read in Stephanie Young’s house reading series in Oakland. The works in Yoke seem a little more consciously flat – as tho Warren’s trying for a tone throughout – but there & in Schema especially, that absolute sense of the line shines through:

there is no rent control
why don’t you sit on my face
and imagine
if only I didn’t occupy this penis
full of integrity
it could be snowing

But that’s the thing about Hounds & Schema both – they’re going to send you seeking out everything Alli Warren has written & published. Because until we get that first Big Book, this is the only way we’re going to be able to find her poetry. & she’s one of those poets who, once you read her work, instantly becomes a necessity.



Wednesday, June 29, 2005

 

When I say, as I have been known to do, that a ten-year-old could write better poetry than many School of Quietude poets, I’m not being snide. I have proof. Proof in the form of Fox of Gold, by Julia T. Mayhew. Here’s a piece that takes off from a familiar premise:

So much relies

on a picture

with

stains of coffee on it

deep in the forest

surrounded by animals

Each line after that hinge of a preposition takes this work in an entirely new direction. The result is absolutely simple & absolutely not. It’s the human imagination at its brightest & best. Here is a sadder poem, a dramatic monolog entitled “I Am a Pencil”:

I am a pencil who has a very
poor life. I am used by
a writer who seems like he
writes a word every minute in his
life. I expected to grow taller
but he peels my skin to only make
my point sharper. He scribbles
dark words with me when he
presses me on the white thing.
I have a friend, pen. He is more
luckier
than me. He has a
cap to protect himself. It is
time to get killed. He is coming
to write with me. I know it
I know it. Oh I wish I
was forgotten never been
used.

Julia Tsuchiya-Mayhew takes off from the Kenneth Koch toolkit – she thanks him along with her parents in the book’s dedication – and does some extraordinary things with it. She has just completed the fourth grade.

Whenever I’ve taught college-age students, I’ve argued that one knows already everything one needs to know in order to be a fine writer. But life – and social situations – conspire to gunk up the works with extra layers of Stuff that get in our way the instant we think to call ourselves writers and set pen to paper. Much of the process of actually learning to write is, in fact, the process of unlearning, the process of getting back to that direct efficacy of imagination that any smart ten-year-old ought to be able to tap. I didn’t really get started writing until I was eleven, but I know that the older I get the harder I strive to get to the way the writing process felt to me right there at the very beginning.

Here’s an example of Stuff, of the order that so often gunks up the human imagination:

Poetry is in some ways lordly or aristocratic: It gets bored more easily than prose, it likes to skip steps, and it is very interested in pleasure. The rectangular blocks of print embodying its young, middle-class nephew, the novel, seem too confining for poetry, which prefers speed and glamour.

Yet at the same time it feels at home in the street, the kitchen, the playground and the tavern. It likes a good time, and it sometimes mocks or parodies solemnity.

These sentences come straight from last Sunday’s Washington Post, from Robert Pinsky’s column, “Poet’s Choice.” I know he’s being cute & all, but the very first thing that jumps out at you is that Mayhew takes her audience more seriously than he does. She’s not condescending where he is.

Pinsky is somebody whose writing I like. But casting agency into “Poetry” in this fashion strikes me as far more pernicious than casting it into a pencil. Given a life all its own, the prospective poet’s task is rendered immeasurably more difficult. Mayhew’s reader is definitely “more luckier.”

Here, just to contrast poetry with poetry, is something by Geoffrey Brock, the most recent winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize.

Interview

"Well that beats all, doesn’t it?" God said,
gazing across the field at a knot of men
arguing outside the tent. He seemed

tired; evening had fallen and many remained
to be interviewed. "Uh, yessir, it sure does,"
I stammered, handing him my application

and standing by the folding metal chair
that faced his own. "So, Mister . . . Brock—" A cry
cut him off there, and he rose to his feet,

flustered. One man lay prostrate on the ground;
the others darted back inside the tent.
A gust of wind disturbed God’s hair, his robe.

I cringed, expecting thunder. Minutes passed.
"Your application," he resumed, "I thought—
I thought I set it here when I stood up."

But there was nothing within a hundred yards
save us, two chairs, and sun-baked earth. He checked
his pockets—nothing. Then he turned to me,

chagrined but not apologetic, smiled,
and said: "I guess you’ll have to come on back
some other time." I thanked him and set out,

sad but relieved, toward the swaying trees,
now black against the darkening plain of sky.
"Good luck," he called to me. As I glanced back,

I saw a woman emerge from the tent, sidestep
the body, and begin the trudge toward God,
pale application flapping in her hands.

I will admit that I’m being unfair here – there are Brock poems that are actually quite good. But it is hard to envision the world in which this prolix & prosaic parable would ever been anything other than a lame piece puffed out with extra verbiage to get the metrics into their sad little lockstep. He actually has to get God to repeat himself in order to the metrics into line. That is as stunning a confession of formalism’s lack of interest in form itself as one might imagine.

Let’s assume, tho, for the sake of argument at least, that once upon a time Geoffrey Brock might have written as directly & intelligently as Julia Mayhew. Whatever he may accomplish as a poet going forward, he will never be able to get back to that.



Tuesday, June 28, 2005

 
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George Oppen

 

Writing on Devin Johnston’s Aversions last December sent me back to reread his first book, Telepathy. This time, tho, it gave me a different sense of his later work – not that Aversions doesn’t achieve, as I wrote, a “high degree of torque,” but rather that it does so because it’s more relaxed – which is to imply “more confident” – than the earlier volume. And this in turn made me think about relaxation as a dimension in writing.

Not long ago, I had a chance to read some of Phil Whalen’s college poetry & was struck by how these early works were very nearly examples of closed verse, a far cry from the more permeable, personable & chatty style we associate with his mature writing. In a similar sense, Charles Olson’s early poems – the works gathered in The Distances, say – look “like poems” to a degree that the later non-Maximus (and even later Maximus) ones do not, but seem almost notational. Likewise, Paul Blackburn’s early works are little set pieces, whereas the later ones are far more content to just note whatever is there without worrying “does this contribute to the narrative or expository flow” of the poem. One can make the same kind of argument, I think, with regards to John Ashbery. Well into the 1970s, each new volume was a staging of a new approach, a new assault. Now the books flow one into the other with a certain sameness, the poems still quite wonderful, but far less concerned with how they impact the social landscape of the poem. Flow Chart is the book that I think first gives this away – but it’s true of everything that’s come after, the closest thing to an exception being perhaps Girls on the Run. One can make the same argument, I think, concerning Robert Duncan’s two final collections, Ground Work I & Ground Work II.

But the most pronounced – and perhaps most controversial – example of this might be Robert Creeley. For 25 years, every book he wrote changed how poetry itself was written in this country. Then, in the 1970s, his style loosened and the poems became more truly personal. I know some folks who cast this into a narrative of decline – or worse – and say to this day, “I like For Love the best.” But I don’t this was what happened at all.

What I do think happened – what I think happens for every writer, really, tho the details vary from individual to individual – is that one writes only what oneself truly needs. And these needs have a lot to do with stage-of-life issues, among all the other little things that can & do go on. In one sense, it would be truer to say that the arc of Robert Creeley’s career was such that for 25 years everything he wrote also happened to change poetry – rather like two celestial bodies passing & sharing for a time their gravity – but that for the following three decades, Creeley continued to write just what he needed, while poetry moved in a somewhat different direction.

That Creeley’s poetry relaxed, post-Mabel & A Day Book, at the same time can’t be denied, but this I think is ancillary to the phenomenon, not causal. Most poets go through a period, early on, of sensing a need to “prove” that they can write a poem & that, further, they can write a poem that is in some way uniquely their own. So early works & first books are full of pieces very much “in the tradition of” the tradition itself, however one cares to define it. One could make this same argument, I suspect, of Lowell or Berryman. Yet at a certain point in a writer’s career – if they are persistent enough – one realizes that one can do this, but that there is no longer anything to prove in only doing this, whatever this might be. This I think is the pulse point when what I’ve been calling relaxation sets in. In fact, one need not relax at all – one could push ever further in some direction, just to find out what’s there. I think that this is what you see in Creeley’s work from Words through Mabel & A Day Book. One sees it in Robert Grenier’s ever deeper move into the psychology of scrawl. One sees it in Zukofsky, from “A”-14 onward (but more about LZ anon).

This impulse to relax is telling us something very important about the poem itself, actually. In Olson, in Whalen, in Blackburn, in all these writers there comes a recognition that the well-wrought urn itself has no particular inherent value, even as variously defined as it might be, say, in the first volume of Maximus. It’s like a visual artist coming to recognize that one need not finish the drawing to get the value of the drawing, whatever it has to offer. So that one focuses instead not on the finished-ness of whatever, but on the value, on what one is after. Whether it’s in the last, fragmentary Cantos of Pound, or in the late works of Williams that Mark Scroggins was disparaging the other day, one sees this again & again in the writing of poets “of a certain age.” Oppen actually says it in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, a work that is almost antithetical to the hard edges of his earlier books:

Poem      Not mine      A ‘marvelous’ object
Is not the marvel of things

That, in part, is what is so interesting about the exceptions. Louis Zukofsky was very nearly 70 when he wrote his finest poems, “A” - 22 & “A” – 23. 80 Flowers is, in fact, more relaxed, but only in comparison to those two poems – as a project, it is more dense than virtually anything else any other poet has ever written. Density has its own value – condensation breeds polysemy & no art rewards the multiplicity of meaning more than does the poem. It is, however, not the only value that a poem might seek or obtain. And it’s rare that it should be the value an older poet would seek.

But relaxation – by which I mean, finally, that sense of giving the poem its head, letting it determine where it needs to go, rather than fixing it on any idea prior to (or otherwise outside) the writing – is something that occurs not only late in a poet’s career, but rather in stages throughout the whole of it, as if it were a lesson we need to learn over & over. One might say, in fact, that the difference of the Williams of, say, Spring & All, from the writer of Keatsian-inflected works only a few years early might also have been exactly this same distinction. Yet one could draw the same comparison between Paterson & Spring & All as well. Or between the poems after 1950 & the main body of Paterson. In a sense, it’s this same demarcation I see between Devin Johnston’s first two books. It’s a lesson we’re all learning, all of the time.



Monday, June 27, 2005

 

For somebody who eventually was sent to an institution “for the feeble-minded,” Henry Darger knew how to read before he began grammar school, skipped second grade & when, at the age of 15, he escaped with some fellow inmates, he managed to return from Lincoln, Illinois, to his hometown of Chicago, a distance of over 100 miles, by walking. Then of course there is the 15,000-page novel of about the Vivian girls, as he called his heroines, and the struggle between Christianity and the Glandelinians, which Darger illustrated with roughly 300 watercolor paintings & collages, many of them ten-feel wide, many of them painted on both sides of the paper. Naked girls, girls with guns, girls with horns, girls with butterfly wings & especially girls with penises. The novel itself reads like a Catholic hallucination as told by a Victorian imagination – as a universe, it’s a vision as complete & thorough as William Blake’s. And yet it is also – baldly – a vision of pedophilia as utter innocence. In a world of total terror & horror – there are disemboweled girls, girls on the gallows, girls being choked as well.

It is the contradictions in Darger’s imagination – and the almost unimaginable romance of his own personal story, the not-quite street person who dies a pauper (in the same poor house where his own father had died) only to become a world famous artist soon after, the janitor who went to mass several times a day, collected hundreds of balls of twine & emerged from nowhere with the most sophisticated use of colors since Matisse – that gives his work so much of its power.

Jessica Yu, an Academy-award winning documentarian who has gone on to direct episodes of ER & The West Wing, spent five years inside Darger’s universe to make In the Realms of the Unreal, an extraordinary documentary that has just become available on DVD. We got our copy from Netflix literally on the day it was released. Even if I had no interest in Darger or his work – the problem of Darger, really – this would be a wonderful way to spend an evening.

Yu has created an impressionistic work, every bit as much a collage of elements as Darger’s own paintings. It has not one, but three interwoven story lines: Darger’s own presentation of his life – from an unpublished autobiography that is among the 15,000 other pages of written material he left behind in addition to the novel – Darger’s life as seen by those around him, and narrative of the novel itself. I had not known about the other 15,000 pages, nor the autobiography, nor that he had skipped second grade. Nor had I heard the strange tale of the time Darger told his neighbors that a "beautiful 17-year-old Italian girl" had tried to rape him and that she stole his money. (Darger's definition of rape was that "you undress a girl and cut her open to see her insides.") His friends seem to have thought that any attempt to report this to the authorities would have led to Darger's institutionalization, and kept him from doing so. I had known about the early death of his mother & his younger sister’s disappearance through adoption – the twin tragedies that set so much of his life in motion (he claimed not even to have known his sister's name) – and of his obsession with the story of the strangling death of five-year-old Elsie Paroubek in 1911. Losing a newspaper photograph of Paroubek became so upsetting to the then-19-year-old Darger that she figures prominently in the novel, albeit under a pseudonym, Annie Aronburg. By 1911, Darger was already two years into the novel.

Yu doesn’t make use of any secondary materials concerning Darger at all. There are no art historians, psychiatrists or cultural critics at all floating around in the film. Indeed, beyond the voice of then-seven-year-old narrator Dakota Fanning – the young girl from I am Sam – and Larry Pine as the voice of Darger himself, the only people we hear are those who actually knew the man. Sort of. They cannot agree on how he pronounced his name, or where he sat every day in mass – tho they agree that he sat in the same place every day, and that he was short, 5’4” or 5’5”.

There are pluses & minuses in this approach. We don’t, for example, have to hear the salacious speculation that Darger himself might have killed Paroubek, as at least one critic has theorized.¹ Nor do we get to see exactly how Darger’s work & material transformed the lives of his landlords, photographer Nathan Lerner & his wife, now widow, Kiyoko, another tale that can be told more than one way. But at the same time, Yu glides right by one of the most salient details in Darger’s history – the why of his banishment to the home for the feeble-minded – without a second thought as to its implications.

Darger, already in a Catholic orphanage, proved unable to stop making odd vocal sounds that disrupted his classes. This is a classic symptom of Tourette Syndrome, the obsessive-compulsive disorder that is one of the least understood – and most socially stigmatized – of all psychiatric conditions. Obsessive-compulsive fits Darger to a T – this is a janitor who, for his entire career, washed floors with a hand brush because he felt mops were “sloppy.” Who wore the same army jacket for decades, giving the impression of being homeless, yet who mended all of his clothes and carefully stitched his name – first & last – into every item of clothing.

I had not known about the possibility of Tourette’s before, nor had I known that Darger for decades had had one close friend, a William Schroeder, with whom he spent a great deal of time before Schroeder moved to Texas before dying in 1956. Nor had I heard or read much of the writing at all. Yu’s film does an excellent job presenting the writing – you come away with a sense both of the style & the story’s outlines, and major details, such as naming the key bad guy, General John Manley of the Glandelinians, after a bully at the home for the feeble-minded. Nor that Darger himself shows up as a character, let alone some of the other details, such as Fort Thumbelina or General Gingersnap. Nor that the novel has not one, but two alternate endings, one in which the Christians triumph, and one in which the Glandelinians succeed. Or that, on occasion, Darger presented himself fictitiously as Henry Dargerus, born in Brazil. Think of how hard it must be to present yourself falsely in a world that barely notices you to begin with.

So I come away from the film with a far fuller sense of who Darger was, and I must say an even deeper sympathy with the completeness of his vision. It is the kind of motion picture that makes you ask yourself: well, what if Dickinson hadn’t written to Higginson? What if Blake had not had a spouse? Where does the role of audience fit into works such as these? It seems so clear that Billy Collins’ concept of accessible art is exactly the wrong way to envision what is going on in the creative process. When, as Darger lay dying in the poor house, one of his neighbors – who had by now all seen the paintings discovered by the Lerners when they started to clean Darger’s rented room – told him how beautiful the paintings were, Darger’s only comment was “It’s too late.”

Even with access to Darger’s acquaintances, and 30,000 pages of written material to work with, Yu had her work cut out for her. There are exactly three photographs of Darger in existence – and we get to see them all, more than once – the by-now-familiar image of the wizened, mustachioed man sitting apparently on a stoop, a photo late in life of him eating a meal, with his bald head bowed forward so that most of what we see is the top of his head, and a photo of a man in his 30s, still with the moustache, but looking perfectly ordinary sitting alongside his older friend Schroeder. Imagine Ken Burns trying to make his Civil War documentary with just three photos to work with. Yu’s solution has been to engage David Wigforss, an animator from SpongeBob SquarePants, no less, to animate Darger’s paintings. Without exception, Wigforss has done a careful, intelligent, sometimes brilliant job, never straying from what the painting itself is suggesting. In the image above, for example, the butterfly wings undulate & flap – nothing else is changed. The effect in the film is sort of a Sgt. Pepper Goes to Hell feel, as strange & beautiful as the paintings themselves.

 

 

¹ This is patent nonsense. Somebody as obsessive-compulsive as Darger would never have killed just one child. If he had a murderous streak in him, he would have killed hundreds, and there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that.



Sunday, June 26, 2005

 

Language poets get blamed for everything. Now I’ve even made Eileen Tabiosbathwater turn cold. .



 

Sappho, dead 2,600 years, is still coming up with new work.



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