Saturday, August 06, 2005
I was born just two hours too soon to have arrived on the first anniversary of
The “victory babies” of summer 1946 were the first burst of the baby-boom generation – it’s the one thing I have in common with both Bill Clinton & George W. Bush – we were all born within weeks of one another. As was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko – “same victory,” he once told me, “different army.”
Wars & governments have enormous impacts on the lives of people. My parents would certainly never have met had my father not enlisted at 16 & thus arrived one evening at a USO dance in the Bay Area. My mother’s family had been in
My father had seen the devastation at Nagasaki first hand – the Meriwether sailors had taken relief supplies to the city in the days immediately following the surrender – although I didn’t know this for another half century, when I finally met my half-siblings in South Carolina & saw my father’s own photographs of the flattened, charred landscape.
The arrogance of power is a feature of power itself. In choosing to “deploy” the bomb on
In 60 years, only one nation has ever used nuclear weapons on another population. Yet now the capability to do so is becoming widespread. Indeed there is a legitimate concern that this capability no longer is necessarily limited to states. There is a side of me that feels a gut certainty that the poor people of
Hiroshima Day demonstrations have been a feature of my birthday week my entire life. When I turned 18 on the day after the Gulf of Tonkin incident & was told that there were no draft counselors on the East Coast except in Philadelphia, I hitched down here on August 6th and immediately set off for the Federal Building, certain that I would find a demo & people who could put me in touch with Coordinating Council of Conscientious Objectors. I was right.
Take a moment today to think about the people of
Friday, August 05, 2005
Peter Sommer’s Continued is interesting from many different perspectives. It is a selected poems that moves backward from the present toward his youth, something I recall only the late
Sommer’s name itself has been popping up a lot lately, making one wonder if it is doing so because he is very good, or because he is so very close, having taught at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Wesleyan, Notre Dame, Indiana & Nebraska (Lincoln). Someone like Czeslaw Milosz benefited enormously from moving west, being translated by a first-rate poet like Bob Hass, giving the School of Quietude a kind of political legitimacy that in reality had nothing to do with its own roots, traditions or impulses. The fact that few of the 50 or so writers I knew in
Such little qualms dissolve very quickly reading this book, which is terrific. For the most part, it reads like terrific poetry period, rather than, say, just “terrific poetry in translation,” which is something else altogether. Here is “Proofs”:
Don’t worry about commas, all these
punctuation marks, colons, semi-colons
and dashes which you so scrupulously
specify will be, thanks to a proof-
reader’s inattentiveness, left out; the rhythm
of your sentence, your thinking, your language
will prove less important than
you expected, or maybe than you wanted.
That was nothing but wishful thinking –
you won’t be read to the music of speech
but to the hubbub of things.
One might read this as kin to the soft surrealism of Simic or Tate, but that seems to me overlaying the American context just as has been done with (or to) Milosz. Ashbery, in his jacket blurb, makes a point of invoking Frank O’Hara (whom Sommer has translated), and one might imagine that, say, in the book’s first poem (which, in theory at least, may be the newest one here):
Morning on Earth
Morning on earth, light snow, and just when
it was so warm, practically spring.
But the thermometer in the kitchen window
says seven degrees,
and pretty sunny.
the electric company guy I like,
and no sign of the gas guy
I can’t stand.
And all of a sudden two Misters M. –
one I’ve fallen for, the other
a bit of a hotshot –
coming back, both nine years old,
just passing the jasmine bush,
a huge bouquet of sticks.
Behind the door
the dog’s excited, nothing’s
at odds with anything.
It’s relatively rare for a poem, even now, to show that the poet understands that it need do nothing at all, but here one is. “Short Version” has more of the tone of one of O’Hara’s set pieces:
I couldn’t be with you when you died.
Sorry, I was toiling day and night
on the title of a poem I didn’t have time to show you.
You really would have liked it.
Even if the poem itself
wasn’t the strongest, I was counting on the title
to prop it up from above,
to set it right even, and to sanction it
as sometimes happens, I don’t know
if the nurse ever had time
to give you the news
because when I called it was
already late, though finally
she took the whole message.
Particularly given Sommer’s background, it’s easy to read him as tho such American influences were in fact just that, as if he were any young poet to have risen up in
Thursday, August 04, 2005
I’ve been in Keystone, Colorado, 100 or so miles west of Denver, for the past couple of days, at a conference where I presented yesterday morning then spent the rest of the day in customer meetings. In between I’ve been reading Piotr Sommer’s Continued, Annie Finch’s Encyclopedia of Scotland & the Amiri Baraka talk in Mixed Blood, about which more anon.
Wednesday, August 03, 2005
Omoo, I have been told, is the Herman Melville title most apt to show up on a crossword puzzle. To call Melville’s second book a novel stretches the meaning of the genre, tho not all that terribly far from places that Jack Kerouac would take it some 115 years hence. There is an “I” & it a has name, “Paul,” & there is a second orienting character – much as Toby was in the earlier Typee – around whom significant portions of the book revolve. This character, Paul’s companion throughout, is known only as The Long Doctor & sometimes as the Long Ghost. This Ghost is as spectral as Neal Cassady’s Dean Moriarty & Cody Pomeray. When “Paul” & the Long Doctor part, the book is one. Indeed, it takes all of three sentences to wrap it up.
If Melville began Typee as a stiff neophyte, by Omoo he has already become the master of pacing in prose, brilliant in his depictions, always with an undercurrent of humor or amusement. D.H. Lawrence gets this when he discovers, or rediscovers, Melville for contemporary readers in his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence’s romance of the sea sounds preposterous today – science fiction writers have long since stopped writing even of space as such a Final Frontier – but Lawrence’s actual description of Melville the character is spot on – and narrator’s personality is everywhere in evidence in Omoo’s prose:
Omoo is a fascinating book;picaresque, rascally, roving. Melville, as a bit of a beachcomber. The crazy ship Julia sails to
Perhaps Melville is at his best, his happiest, in Omoo. For once he is really reckless. For once he takes life as it comes. For once he is the gallant rascally epicurean, eating the world like a snipe, dirt and all baked into one bonne bouche.
For once he is really careless, roving with that scamp, Doctor Long Ghost. For once he is careless of his actions, careless of his morals, careless of his ideals: ironic, as the epicurean must be. The deep irony of your real scamp: your real epicurean of the moment.
Given how autobiographical Melville’s first books are – and the interest & industry that have grown up around his work since Lawrence called our attention back to it again some 82 years ago, it’s curious that no one I’m aware of appears to have tried to fathom out just who Long Ghost might have been.
One could argue, of course, that the account of Omoo captures a set period of time, starting with Melville’s (or Paul’s) departure from the cannibals of Typee & contains his adventures on the ship Julia, led by an incompetent captain & fiendish first mate, and then his stay on Tahiti & the surrounding islands. But one might also argue, with at least as much vindication, that Omoo is the tale of Paul’s relationship with the Long Doctor & that the events of the narrative are incidental to the relationship betwixt these two barely named men.
Barely named. I find it fascinating that Melville, who in just four years will emerge as the most psychological of 19th century American novelists, offers so little insight here into his characters – certainly into Long Ghost’s – and seems so casually interested in the topic that he can hardly bring himself to name him. Indeed, the fullest description we get of the man is also the first, at the end of the second chapter:
His early history, like that of many other heroes, was enveloped in the profoundest obscurity; though he threw out hints of a patrimonial estate, a nabob uncle, and an unfortunate affair which sent him a-roving. All that was known, however, was this. He had gone out to
His personal appearance was remarkable. He was over six feet high--a tower of bones, with a complexion absolutely colourless, fair hair, and a light unscrupulous gray eye, twinkling occasionally at the very devil of mischief. Among the crew, he went by the name of the Long Doctor, or more frequently still, Doctor Long Ghost. And from whatever high estate Doctor Long Ghost might have fallen, he had certainly at some time or other spent money, drunk
As for his learning, he quoted Virgil, and talked of Hobbs of Malmsbury, beside repeating poetry by the canto, especially Hudibras. He was, moreover, a man who had seen the world. In the easiest way imaginable, he could refer to an amour he had in
Long Ghost, in short, is rather a Rorschach test, a pomo absence-at-the-center a good 120 years before such strategies would become fashionable. As such, Omoo can be read as a character study that hardly notices its character. Reading it feels episodic, not because of the events themselves, but because events as such are a distraction.
A lot gets made of Melville’s perceptions of the impact of the European world on Tahiti, the depredations of the missionaries – who are represented as plainly corrupt, little more than imperialist functionaries – but Melville’s “contemporary” attitudes reach much further than just recognizing how dramatically contact with the West has disrupted island culture. The departures he will make over the next few years, away from such “realism” through the disaster that was The Whale, eventually into poetry, all seem germinating in this tale
Tuesday, August 02, 2005
It’s been some 34 years since Al Purdy’s collection Storm Warnings first appeared, introducing Canadian readers to such new poets as bill bissett, David McFadden, Barry McKinnon & Tom Wayman. Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets, co-edited by Lorna Crozier & Patrick Lane, is the third such attempt since then to update this fundamental concept, the newcomers’ collection, the first two being Purdy’s second volume & the Crozier-Lane team’s 1995 Breathing Fire.
The book reminds me of nothing so much as Michael Lally’s None of the Above, the one instance of the newcomers’ anthology in which I got to participate, way back in 1976. Like Breathing Fire 2, None of the Above was a grab bag – in Lally’s case, an amalgam of the third generation New York School (Maureen Owen, Joe Brainard, Phillip Lopate, Bernadette Mayer, Hilton Obenzinger, Tim Dlugos, Lorenzo Thomas, Paul Violi & Alice Notley), Actualism (Darrell Gray, Dave Morice, George Mattingly, Simon Schuchat, Lally himself & Jim Gustafson), Language Poetry (Bruce Andrews, yours truly, Mayer again, Ray Di Palma, Lynne Dreyer, P. Inman & Barbara Baracks), DC Poets (Ed Cox, Terence Winch, Dreyer, Lally, Inman) and some very independent others (Merrill Gilfillan, Joanne Kyger, Patti Smith (!), Joe Ribar, Nathan Whiting & Paula Novotnak). History has already shown that the NY School poets of that generation did quite well, as did Langpo, but that Actualism virtually disappeared. Patti Smith is famous, tho not for her poetry. Gilfillan & Kyger continue to be originals, tho each now has a much larger body of writing to show for it. And Nathan Whiting, who composed long slender poems in his head while training for marathons, still deserves to be far more widely known. I don’t know if he’s even alive, or still writing.
That same sort of mixed fate probably awaits the poets of Breathing Fire 2, if they’re lucky. I stress that latter phrase since, of the contributors to the first edition of Breathing Fire – Marisa Alps, Stephanie Bolster, Lesley-Anne Bourne, Thea Bowering, Tim Bowling, Sioux Browning, Suzanne Buffam, Alison Calder, Mark Cochrane, Karen Connelly, Michael Crummey, Carla Funk, Susan Goyette, Joelle Hahn, Sally Ito, Joy Kirstin, Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen, Barbara Klar, Evelyn Lau, Michael Londry, Judy MacInnes Jr., Heather MacLeod, Barbara Nickel, Kevin Paul, Michael Redhill, Jay Ruzesky, Gregory Scofield, Nadine Shelly, Karen Solie, Carmine Starnino and Shannon Stewart – only Goyette is known to me a decade after its publication. And I do read around.
So is that the old Canadian border thing, or is that a function of the selections? I can’t say for certain, but clearly there are many wonderful younger Canadian poets – Christian Bök, Jeff Derksen, Louis Cabri, Mark Truscott, Darren Wershler-Henry, Jonathan Wilcke, Todd Swift, Kevin Davies, Sonnet L’Abbe, just to pick a few off the top of my head. How many of these young lights are here? None. If I pick up Sina Queyras’ Open Field, which admittedly has a different focus, something akin to “the best” Canadian poetry, rather than the newest – the only overlap between the two volumes is the presence of editor Lorna Crozier in Field. So while the 33 poets included here have been publishing around – several have books – none has as yet emerged from the white noise of the mags . . . at least from my perspective.
So what have I been missing? What seems clear is that – in contrast with the diverse poetics of that list of younger Canadians in the last paragraph – these poets of Breathing Fire 2 all practice sort of a gentle post-New American Poetics, some of it quite good, but much less concerned with innovation or with the relationship of form to contemporary life than one might expect from something whose title suggests a dragon-like fierceness. In many ways, these poets, to think of them as a group, straddle that ambiguous ground that has one eye on a side of the New Americans & another on that side of the
The Breathing Fire 2 poets include:
warren heiti (who eschews caps in his name)
matt robinson (another lower-caser)
If these poets aren’t a group, as such, there are at least three dynamics that are visible. One is that seven of them are or were students of Lane & Crozier’s at the
From what I gather, there were some 300 submissions to Breathing Fire 2. Of the 33 who made it, these are the ones who leapt forward during my reading as being, at the least, promising:
Shane Book has a poem entitled “Litost: A Style Manual,” that reads like very early Jorie Graham. He has at least the potential for some wildness that would give his work a depth these too tidy pieces have not yet gotten.
Brad Cran’s penchant for description & a clean line underscores a sense of craft that is always a good sign, whatever use it might be put to.
Joe Denham’s poems cry to be read out loud:
I etch ephemeral sketches in flat, black water,
swirling the pike pole like a sparkler wand,
the steel spear tip igniting fairy-dust krill
as we drift in to haul up our catch.
Hopefully he’ll never learn to tame that instinct.
warren heiti’s prose, as uncapitalized as he, has an over-the-top impulse behind it that has serious potential. So often, the best writing is that which takes one’s quirks and extends them, rather than reining them in.
What I trust in Ray Hsu’s work is the intellectual ambition that lurks everywhere. I have an intuition that he may be a decade or more from his real work, but I’ll be interested to read it.
Gillian Jerome’s poems don’t hang together – and that’s what I like about them. The wildness in her work needs to be encouraged. She’s one of the very best writers in the whole book.
Anita Lahey’s poems have a wonderful sense of their line. One senses her being completely accomplished at what she’s doing. Hopefully she’ll want to stretch.
Chandra Mayor is the poet who made me use the phrase
I like Steve McOrmond’s pacing. His work reminds me of some of the more serious sides of Actualism or of the uptown side of the NY School’s later generations.
I want to like Alayne Munce’s poetry – it has a liveliness under the surface that peeks out constantly, but these poems are so constrained I want to scream.
George Murray – another Actualist who probably has never heard of that term before.
Steven Price has serious writing chops – he’s not the most accomplished of the bunch (Book, Heroux & Lahey are), but he’s obviously going somewhere in a hurry. I like intellectual ambition – I say that repeatedly & it’s true. He may be on his way toward being the B.C. version of Paul Muldoon, but there are far worse fates.
matt robinson is all about the line. He & Book share that quality, tho their work otherwise is very different.
Nathalie Stephens is the wildest writer in the book. She clearly is going to be a major writer – in some ways, she already is. Consider all the turns & directions in this paragraph:
b produced Commodify me. How the Artists swooned! (They had forgotten irony.) Some heard Come modify me. They were doubly rapt. They dinned b’s unexpected turnaround! (Allowing this once for the minuscule; for hadn’t he too, enfin, capitulated?) Indeed he was spinning. With impatience no doubt as n was seeing him off. The city grew impatient for that departure.
You can’t fake this. As a reader, you either go with it, or you don’t. She’s obviously got the wisdom & commitment to go with it.
As a whole, the book suffers from the misconception that a poem is a Little Narrative in Lines. Breathing Fire has more of an APR feel than APR itself has had in some time. Still, there is real work amidst the exercises, especially Stephens & Jerome. I’ll be curious to see where heiti & Hsu take their writing over time. And, when I come across his poems, I’ll read Joe Denham aloud.
Monday, August 01, 2005
The Shakespeare festival at our house continues apace, as we watched Michael Radford’s minimalist interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. Minimalist in that Shakespeare’s dialog is stripped of the “extraneous” elements necessary to make the narrative move forward on a stage, as Radford’s camera & editing offer us reaction shots instead of asides. The pace is that of a motion picture, rather than that of a play – and the use of exteriors & sometimes extravagant interiors emphasize the distinction.
Merchant was the first play of Shakespeare’s I ever saw performed live, a production of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco sometime around 1970 that envisioned the whole affair as a movie by Fellini (notably Juliet of the Spirits). I’ve subsequently seen productions by both the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival (back in the days when it was still operating out of an amphitheatre in a neighborhood park) & People’s Light Theater Company here in
Radford’s version falls into the latter category, not so much because he means it to, I think, but because as an actor, Lynn Collins blows everyone else – a considerable group, including Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino & Joseph Fiennes – off the stage with her embodiment of Portia. It’s as brilliant & confident & subtle a presentation of any Shakespeare character as I’ve ever seen on film – and her radiance is magnified because she must play opposite the badly miscast Fiennes, as hapless an actor as we have in film today (& the man who made Gwyneth Paltrow seem a great actress when playing opposite her in Shakespeare in Love).
If Shakespeare’s text & Radford’s cinematic direction give the film two of its major engines, the unevenness of the acting gives it its third. It’s not that Irons or Pacino are bad, by any means – they’re two of the finest actors living – but they seem to have decided that they’re in different films. Irons’ Antonio is depressed & withdrawn – he swallows almost every line he’s given. Pacino, in contrast, does what I think of as a Meryl Streep, presenting every one of his speeches as tho it were a concert by Luciano Pavarotti, with no other players on the stage (he does make an exception for Irons). Pacino’s Shylock comes across as a Hasid from the
Anticipating Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, Radford & Pacino have decided that the portrayal of Shylock is not anti-Semitic, but rather a treatise on anti-Semitism itself. This may well be letting off Shakespeare too easily, tho it does allow the play to carry a sense of currency – literally, immediacy – that it could not otherwise have. Radford opens the play with a scene showing the blatant racism of
So the bits & pieces here don’t gel. I may some day happily watch this version again, tho, just to see Lynn Collins demonstrate how Shakespeare ought to be done & because it’s fun to watch Al Pacino work, even when he’s moseyed into a cul-de-sac of wrong choices. But if I really want to see the master at his best, I’ll go rent Dog Day Afternoon.
Sunday, July 31, 2005
The death scene of You Know Who from the latest Harry Potter novel, as written in the style of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Geoffrey Chaucer, Douglas Adams, James Joyce, Helen Fielding, Scooby Do, Dave Eggers, Flipper, Jack Kerouac, H.P. Lovecraft, Roald Dahl, Anne Rice, A.A. Milne, Lemony Snicket, Samuel Beckett, Hunter S. Thompson & many many more.