Saturday, July 30, 2005
Allen Bramhall & Jeff Harrison are using a blog in what appears (to me at least) a new way, as a mechanism for an ongoing interview. Bramhall is always trying out new things with blogs. Harrison has been working with the interview form. I’ve commented on Jeff’s work before, especially his Worms’ Work.
This interview makes me think of how the dating system for entries in Blogger is a set-up – the interview progresses from the bottom up. Perhaps if one suppressed the date stamp, one would be more inclined to proceed as we have for so long on paper, from the top down. (Harvey Bialy’s is the one weblog on the blogroll that I believe starts at the top & moves downward – he accomplishes this, it would appear, by giving every post the same date.) When the first pre-IBM computers showed up in the 1970s, working on C/PM and other pre-DOS operating systems, some folks predicted that we’d all end up writing 22-line poems because that’s how many lines there were on a “green screen.” Didn’t happen. The technology changed too quickly, before the synapses of a generation were set in stone (or pixels, or what have you). That will almost certainly be the case as well with this “start at the end & work backwards” blogging software. Good riddance to that.
Friday, July 29, 2005
Thursday, July 28, 2005
It was just too hot when I got out of my meeting to drive 135 miles in an un-air-conditioned car (a vestige of my days in Berkeley, where nobody needs air conditioning), so instead I drove a couple of miles north the Palisades Center Mall, whose faux-Pompidou interior is looking a little worn & downscale after just seven years, to wander through Barnes & Noble. I looked through its poetry section, which is pretty dismal. I gazed at several newish translations of Dante, cringing my way through the opening stanzas of each, wishing more than ever that the Dorothy Sayers translation was still in print. I also noted that there were three versions of Gilgamesh in what amounted to three small five-foot book cases, one by Stephen Mitchell that I’ve got sitting in one of the “unread book” bookcases at home, one by David Ferry, the third by somebody I not heard of before. There was a collected Auden & I was already aware of the flack I was catching for my offhand remark here that day, so I picked it up and headed over to the chairs by the faux café. I tried the early work & late & in between & never was able to get beyond half a page of any poem: too prolix, too full of generalities, a sense of meter to doze for. I had to walk all the way across the store to reshelve it in Poetry again.
This time, I picked up Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader. These I bought, knowing that they were both books I was destined to get eventually. For reasons that are obscure and have to do with the problems of architecture & store layout, this B&N has poetry directly across from the cash register and that may have helped. I paid, then wandered over to Legal Seafood for dinner. I was in no hurry. The trout was overcooked & dry rather than flaky & I’ve gotten better baked potatoes at Wendy’s, but the still-overheated part of me did appreciate the key lime smoothie. I didn’t read the books over dinner exactly, but thumbed through one, then thumbed through the other, then did it again. Gilbert & (Riding) Jackson seemed like a bizarrely apt combination, these two gloomiest of poets. One so in love with truth she sounds like Fox Mulder in the old X-Files, the other equally in love with beauty and the romance of the difficult. It’s funny how very much alike they sound – but both are totalitarians as poets. Both use generalizations, but they each absolutely are committed to the concepts that underlie them. Neither is at all like the bland muddle of Auden.
Done, I wandered around awhile, trying to decide whether there were any other stores in the mall I wanted to investigate. I even found a bench and took a few minutes just to meditate, shutting my eyes & listening to the ambient sounds of passing shoppers. Then I made my way back to the underground parking lot where my car was still cooling off. The sun was finally starting to set as my Mazda emerged from underneath the mall & headed for the
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
I finally got around to seeing Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango the other night & it makes for a fascinating study of what makes narrative. It was fortuitous since earlier that same day I’d gone ballistic reading the opening of Robert Pinsky’s column in the
Poems have plots. A poem happens in time: sometimes with an explicit, actual story and sometimes as the more implicit story of a feeling as it unfolds.
A poem does happen in time – even a single-letter poem has a beginning, middle & end – but the unfolding of meaning in time is narrative. Ascribing this to a projected external world beyond the language – a far different & much narrower thing – is plot, an exercise of the parsimony principle. Assassination Tango is a film with a lot more narrative than plot & in the difference lies much of its charm.
At 71, Robert Duvall wanted to make a film that revolved around his two abiding passions – his love of dance & his 30-year-old Argentine girlfriend, Luciana Pedraza. Assassination Tango is the result. John Anderson (Duvall) is an aging hit man, a one-time mercenary doing small-time assassinations for the local godfather (former boxer Frankie Gio) in the outer reaches of Brooklyn, living with a manicurist & her ten-year-old daughter, when he gets a three-day job to travel to Buenos Aires for a hit on an old general, a man responsible himself for many disappearances & murders. John’s experience hunting Sandinistas have given him the language & cultural skills to be the best man for the job. But when he gets there, he discovers first that his contacts in
But Assassination Tango isn’t about its story at all. It’s about the construction of John’s character, about the tempo & timing of interludes, about the quiet discourse between two people who aren’t all that proficient in each other’s language as they get to know one another. In its best moments, Assassination Tango has a feel to it that I associate with the films of the late John Cassavetes, which mumble & lurch toward much deeper truths than one can get out of
John’s character is built out of details & bits. The details are what we know about him – he was a mercenary, his love for the manicurist is notably less than his delight in her daughter (he’s never had children before), he talks to himself, he hangs out at a bar that offers dance lessons out by
The trick in all this is to get the audience to root for the assassin to get away with the murders he commits (four in all during the course of the film, two for hire and two others in the process of getting it done & getting away) – to see him as a human, vulnerable & plausible. It’s not that there haven’t been sympathetic hit men in the movies before – Jean Reno in Léon (also known as The Professional, the title under which it seems to show up on cable these days) is almost as adorable as he is inscrutable, an excruciatingly difficult star turn, poised as Reno is between two of the great scene stealers of our time, Natalie Portman (at the age of 12, no less) & Gary Oldman in his most over-the-top villain role ever, the psychotic narc who kills while listening to classical music over headphones. But Duvall the dancer is the antithesis of
The crux of Assassination Tango comes in the scenes that have the least to do with advancing the plot. John takes the Argentine out for coffee & they just talk – Pedraza has the flattened affect of someone who has never acted before (& Duvall manages to make it work in ways that his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, does not with his own daughter in Godfather III, largely by keeping Pedraza’s dialog to scenes with himself and other very low-key actors – she never appears opposite Reubén Blades, Kathy Baker, Frankie Gio or anyone who might create a stylistic contrast). They just talk, she smiles, he smiles, we learn that he’s not going to lie to her about his relationships in the States (just as, before and after, we see him lying to Kathy Baker, the woman he lives with). Was that the point of the scene or was it, in fact, the give & take? Duvall, the director, is letting the audience here see what he sees when he looks at Pedraza. It's a remarkable moment, the key in many ways to the entire film.
In another scene, John is leaving a club with her & her friends & one shows him a trick to help him get over his bow-legged way of walking, by placing a quarter between his knees & holding it there as he walks down the street. This is like one of those scenes in a Harrison Ford film in which Ford creates a back story for the little scar on his chin – it doesn’t particularly move anything forward. But Duvall takes the time to stretch the scene out & films it from up high & across the street (the same angle John has been practicing for shooting the general). The pacing of the scene, its timing (the night before the hit), the dialog, both familiar & yet between people who will never know one another well, are more than incidental. It’s what you talk about when you don’t know that the moment you’re in stands on the precipice of great events. Except that one character in this scene knows that.
At the same time, Duvall also goes out of his way to give his own character an edge, to leave questions open. There’s a scene with a prostitute in the hotel in Buenos Aires that makes no sense in the movie until much later when the woman is questioned by the police & says that John made her call him Daddy, a term that suddenly casts his relationship between the old hit man & the young dancer, not to mention the old hit man & the manicurist’s ten-year-old daughter, into a totally different light.
Critics have generally not loved this film because they see Duvall moving the chess pieces around as he creates this piece. Yet shoving the pieces into position is so much what this movie is about that the charge feels churlish or just beside the point. There is a reason this movie’s title conjoins words from such dissimilar schema, like Godzilla Banana. Far from concealing the film-maker’s art, Assassination Tango renders the constructedness of it all as the absolute heart of a remarkably human film.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
If the new edition of Chicago Review devotes 137 pages to Christopher Middleton, that’s just for openers – the issue contains another 170 pages of poetry, fiction & critical fair, virtually all of it of interest, and very much in the vein of what Jacket does online, suggesting broad contexts for reading. It contains a generous selection of post-avant poetry in English, with work by poets with roots in Australia (John Kinsella), France (Gustav Sobin with one of his last poems), England (Keston Sutherland &, in another way altogether, Alice Notley), Canada (Christopher Dewdney, Kevin Connolly), a look at Allen Ginsberg’s photography, new work by Landis Everson, one of the original members of the Berkeley Renaissance who is returning to print with quite a flourish at the end of his eighth decade, a long piece of fiction by Lisa Jarnot, an interview with Camille Guthrie plus memorials to Philip Lamantia & Guy Davenport.
ChiRev – an abbreviation I’ve been using now for some 38 years, back to when I first appeared in that journal, and which shows up in my own poetry, but which may be exclusive to me, I don’t know – has been doing this with each of its recent special issues & it makes extraordinary sense. Come for the Middleton, the Dorn or Zukofsky, stay & get turned on to something new altogether, simply because on the page they make sense. The cohesion of this issue is as impressive as any accomplished by a single hand, be it Clayton Eshleman, Cid Corman, Bob Creeley or Barrett Watten. That it is actually being done by a college magazine is more or less impossible. With their typically cautious faculty sponsorships & rotating student editors, college mags are a ground for young poets to get some sense of what editing may be about, but the simple fact is that most are pretty dreadful productions, maybe a “famous” name or two & a lot of student work – sometimes the student work is quite a bit better than the generous mid-career poet’s contribution, having given the mag something he or she wouldn’t send to a journal that might be more widely read.
Chicago Review has had its own mixed history of course. An attempt in 1959 to publish “Old Angel Midnight” by Jack Kerouac & an excerpt from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in the journal was thwarted by a half-wit journalist at the Chicago Daily News who knew that a good ruckus over obscenity would increase his readership, leading instead Paul Carroll to create Big Table as an alternative site, in many ways the inaugural event of Chicago postmodernism, especially after the Post Office in turn went after Carroll & Big Table. In the late 1960s, Eugene Wildman & Iven Lourie (who would abandon his own literary career for a deepening spiritual engagement in the 1970s & is probably remember now more as the brother of Hanging Loose co-founder Dick Lourie) pushed the magazine out of that sort of inevitable collegiate shell college mags can fall into, but then the staffs rotated again & not much was heard until the mid-90s. Thus, for example, it seemed mostly to miss the burst of creativity that poured forth in the wake of a brief post-Iowa teaching stint in the
The writer whose work pulled me in first is Kevin Connolly, who I’m presuming is the Canadian poet & journalist, tho any details are curiously absent from the contributors’ notes. He has a piece entitled “So Familiar,” which acknowledges that it is “after Darrell Gray.”
You are the toy delivered at daybreak,
conundrum to a storm of checkmarks,
and still, so familiar to me
this bale of regret
I have strawdogged. . .
young love caught under the porch
with the chamois and the millionaire
A class of oafs
can set the terms more finely
than any timeshare Nero
But when I put up my fiddle, the
moon dawdles on my cheekbones –
all those plump hours tractoring back
A perfectly fine little poem & one that does indeed remind me of Darrell, the Actualist poet who drank himself to death far too young, especially Darrell’s work under the French pseudonym Phillipe Mignon, sort of a kinder, but not gentler, Kent Johnson.(Johnson is himself represented in the issue via a sympathetic review by David Hadbawnik.) Gray, who studied with Berrigan in Iowa City in the late 1960s, before moving to the Bay Area after a brief stint writing – no joke – verse for Hallmark in Kansas City, was the lynchpin for a network of poets whom one might think of as third generation New York School, save for the notable detail that they were not New Yorkers & not in New York.
Another member of that same generation at
by the little daggers of my dear, the very legitimate tendernesses of his spirit/body i swear.
to go on before the courts and flowing lectures, to animate the light with furious weight.
The whole heritage of the New American Poetry is captured in something like furious – it’s a term you can hear Kerouac & Whalen, for example, using before a noun such as weight. It is impossible to get such life into a poem without having it be there at all points – it’s not something you can fake or learn in school. Even in these new & sometimes strange forms, Notley’s poetry is absolutely bristling with such instances of specificity, in every line, every phrase.
A very different vision of the history of the New American Poetry shows up in Peter Leary’s review – it’s both deeper & more personal than that term suggests – of the humongous volume of collected correspondence between Robert Duncan & Denise Levertov. Both poets have seen their reputations wane somewhat since their deaths – Duncan’s because key projects such as The H.D. Book and any sort of collected poems have never seen print, Levertov because she cast her lot in her later years with one side of the School of Quietude, which has a perpetual tendency to neglect its own (part of a larger hostility to literary history that one suspects is because a cold, clear look at same would force them to, as Rilke would have put it, change their lives). Both are considerably more important figures than they might seem today, and are like to return as forces if & when fuller collections of their of work are made available.
Leary focuses on the degree to which this correspondence traces the breakup of their deep friendship over the Vietnam War, the moment of great drama in the letters, to be sure. Levertov who became a fulltime political activist in these years argued with Duncan, who was a good enough friend to actually tell her the truth about what this was doing to her writing. Yet it is worth remembering here that it was Duncan, with “The Fire Passages 13” & “The Multiversity Passages 21,” along with Allen Ginsberg’s ”Wichita Vortex Sutra,” & George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” who turned out to be the great antiwar poet of the Vietnam conflict. Levertov’s own political poetry is not anywhere near her best work, and the Vietnam era poems don’t stand up well against antiwar work by far more conservative poets like James Dickey or Donald Justice.
At the same time,
Ginsberg, on the other hand, is represented via a fascinating consideration of his photography & specifically how his photography fits into his literary aesthetic, specifically the problem of how to photograph the subjective. Erik Mortenson is new to me as a critic, but this strikes me as a rich vein of possibility. Ginsberg was obsessed with his photography – in some ways, I think it was a form in which he never had to fit into the expectations of being “Allen Ginsberg, Papa Hippie, King of the May.” Once before a panel we were both on under the big tent at Naropa began, he leaned over to me to say “When I’m in places like this, I’m always imagining all the photographs I could be taking of the audience.”
A very different view of post-avant tradition comes in Bill Mohr’s piece on Paul Vangelisti, the
But it’s hard to fault a publication this rich & this committed to the completeness of the post-avant. The memorial pieces for Philip Lamantia & Guy Davenport, for example, bring together radically different views of poetry & the world. Both have important relationships, however, to the same broader scene. Similarly, there are pieces here that I haven’t mentioned by Elizabeth Willis, Sarah Mangold, and a delightful review of Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed by Daniel Kane. Plus lots of poets new (or at least relatively new) to me, starting with Philip Jenks, John Wilkinson, Daniel Borzutzky, Danielle Pafunda, Camille Martin, J.S.A. Lowe, Jen Lamb, Tim Early & Gregory Fraser. It’s not that there are no false moments – Elshtain tries to compare D.A. Powell with Charles Olson & another piece overpraises the work of Jeff Clark, who has been designing the covers of ChiRev of late. In all, however, this is a feast. It’s not up on the Chicago Review website quite yet, but this issue – like all of the recent ones – is worth ponying up for. While you’re at it, get whatever back issues you don’t already own.
Monday, July 25, 2005
I need, I suspect, a big collected or selected poems by Christopher Middleton. Then, just maybe, I’ll be able to figure out what I think about him. Knowing his poetry as I do, principally through anthologies – and specifically the TriQuarterly 21: Contemporary British Poetry, guest edited by John Matthias back in 1971, and Keith Tuma’s more recent (2001) Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry – I can make no headway. He does not appear in these collections to be even the same poet. To which the very large Christopher Middleton issue of the Chicago Review, just out, now seems to offer yet another possibility.
What I know about the man is relatively limited. The TriQuarterly British issue lists him as having been born in 1923. The Tuma (& the New York Review of Books) has him being born in 1926, the same year as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, A.R. Ammons, Paul Blackburn, James Merrill & Frank O’Hara. A fascinating year for poetry, tho I note that the one thing that list has in common, save for Middleton, is not that he’s English & they’re not, but that the lot of them are dead.
I think of Middleton as a German translator, of which he’s done a great deal, and he taught in
Here, from the TriQuarterly, is the first of “Five psalms of common man”:
Whisky whipping g-string Jaguar megaton
sometimes a ‘purely rational being’
it’s me they tell of yonder sea devoid of amber
it’s me they tell of column and haunting song
noncommittal me my mumble eaten
by the explosions of clocks and winds without routine
not fountains not millennia of light inextinguishable
ebbing through column and throat with its
come my pet my demagogue excruciate me watching
yonder fountain douse the yolky dunes
Halfway betwixt Eliot’s symbolism & a vaudeville surrealism, but with a particularly flat ear. Somehow this emanates from the man who wrote these first two stanzas of “Hearing Elgar Again,” one of two selections in the Tuma, both of which are dated 1980, nine years after the TriQuarterly:
Not crocked exactly, but in a doze,
There I was, before supper time: Elgar,
Stop your meteoric noise, the glory
Leaves me cold; then it was
I woke to the melody –
Back, a place, 1939, and people
Singing, little me among them,
Fresh from a holiday
Summer, beside the Cornish sea, I sang
In chorus with a hundred English people.
Not free verse exactly (hear the off-rhyme in melody & holiday, the reiteration of people), but close enough. Absolutely normative narrative figuration – my take on this piece is that it reminds me of what Auden might have been had he actually been a good writer.
Contrast this in turn with the first two sections of “Waiting for Harvest Moon,” one of just two poems that appear in the 137 pages that the Chicago Review devotes to Middleton & his work:
Shadows thrown by people on a wall,
A fragile charm, and they stand upright.
More often the flat shadows, horizontal
On a paying stone. You tread on them.
No, the shadows are not thrown at all.
If it be said that some shadow defined
Significant bodies in a Venetian painting,
Then shadows can be considered transitive.
Which may be the least transitive way you could make that assertion. But note here that the line is not at all like either of the other two passages quoted above, nor are they at all alike. If ever there was a concept that defined the poets born in & around the 1920s, it was the equation of one’s sense of line with one’s “personality” or aesthetic “signature.” This was true of course in the most complex of cases – Charles Olson’s projective verse raises it to the level of a theory – but even Ammons & Merrill could be said to demonstrate the principle. Middleton, in contrast, seems more like Woody Allen’s Zelig, capable of taking on radically different personae, as tho the most stable (or rigid) aspect of the poetry of his generation were, for him, entirely plastic.
There is, in all these pieces, even (perhaps especially) the second with its figured presence of a speaking “I,” a certain distance here, a coolness not of the impersonal, but of craft – as if the reader can always hear the hushed engine of form to remind him/her that the presence of any persona will be a simulacrum at best. Auggie Kleinzahler, whose comment to W. Martin after a reading in
The Middleton feature is the third of three Chicago Review large special issues devoted to major poets, the two previous being Ed Dorn & Louis Zukofsky. Plus they’ve had a similarly grand number devoted to filmmaker Stan Brakhage. If the Middleton works less effectively than the others, it is only because Middleton himself is not so widely known & the issue itself appears edited with the presumption that a great deal will be known & understood in advance by the reader. Given the initial premise from the discussion between Kleinzahler & Martin, this seems odd.
The principle weakness is simply that there is so little of the verse itself, just four pages from 137, and not up front either, but the fourth & fifth of Middleton’s own contributions, the first & best of which is a wonderful “Retrospective Sketch,” something of a five-page contributor’s note that verges toward full-scale intellectual autobiography. It’s a telling & fascinating piece, confessing admiration for “Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, but not the sprawl of his new and narcissistic work,” admitting to re-reading “Pound, rather than exasperating my wits with Olson.” Middleton likes Williams, Snyder, Creeley, but also “Donald Hall’s crisp work.” For a piece this brief, it is remarkably thorough as a positioning statement, suggesting a writer out of the Pound-Williams tradition, but one whose relation, say, to the New American Poetry was consciously arms-length. Middleton seems amused, rather than chagrined, at the thought that Anselm Hollo is more widely known than himself.
Marius Kociejowski adds to these five works a good 12 pages from a much longer interview with Middleton (which, along with Kociejowski’s own later portrait of the man, is reprinted directly from Palavers, and A Nocturnal Journal, Middleton’s most recent book in the U.K.), but it is Kleinzahler himself who takes on the responsibility of really introducing Middleton here, some 40 pages into the feature. It’s a well considered essay, both in its discussions of Middleton’s work directly & in comparing Middleton, for example, to an American author with whom I’ve also had trouble coming to terms: Guy Davenport.¹ Zulkifar Ghose, another poet one might not expect to find living in Austin, considers the context in which Middleton found himself in England (placing him closer to the mainstream, the likes of Larkin & Hughes & even Eliot, rather than, say, Bunting & Finlay or the whole new generation of young wild men like Raworth, Fisher & Pickard) & speculates on the impact coming to America has had on the work. Jeremy Hooker considers the poetry itself, tho his point of reference throughout tends to be Coleridge, a little like reading Williams as an extension of Keats. Timothy Harris simply wants to acknowledge the idea – surely correct – that a poet as at home in contemporary European avant writing as Middleton needs to be read within that framework, rather than the more parochial ones created by the British lit’ry ‘stablishment. The remaining 60 pages are, for the most part, the celebratory sorts of things one would expect of a festschrift, the most useful of which are a pair of memoirs assessing Middleton as a traveler to that intersection of the world where
If I go back to my test of editing, that its first task must be that of offering context, the Middleton feature is a mixed bag. The issue, I think, proves Kleinzahler’s initial point completely – Middleton does warrant much broader exposure, not only for his own sake, but for all it tells us about where British & American poetry sit in the larger contexts of European postmodernism. At the same time, this is a feature that will be read very differently by initiates & by those who don’t really “get” Middleton, or who may be coming to him for the very first time. A little like the photo of Middleton by John Anderson at the top of this note, which ChiRev reproduces parts of on its cover 470 times, you might not actually understand what it is that you’re seeing.
¹ There is, one might say, a substantial number of writers who come out of the Pound-Williams tradition but who hold, or held, the New American Poetry if not in actual contempt, then at least in check as any sort of influence on their own writing, and I’ve hardly ever felt comfortable with any of these folks. The late Gustav Sobin, for example.
Sunday, July 24, 2005
· New York Times,
· Philadelphia Inquirer,
· Philadelphia Inquirer,
· New York Times,
· Seen and Heard, July, 2005 (Anne Ozorio)
· Observer Review (Guardian/UK), July 17 (George Hall)
· Evening Standard, July 11 (Fiona Maddocks)
· Newark Star-Ledger,