Saturday, August 20, 2005
As anyone who has read these notes closely in recent weeks can tell, I am in need of some time away from the grid. Accordingly, the laptop is staying in the docking station whilst I & family decamp to a part of
Friday, August 19, 2005
Google says that it has put its program of scanning and posting searchable texts of books on hiatus until November. However, Google already has scanned in many volumes, mostly of books published by university presses. This includes both critical and creative texts.
If you have any concern about this and its impact on the distribution of your work, you should link over to http://print.google.com/ and do a search on your own name. You might then want to look at your contract(s) with your publisher(s) and see if you have already signed away permission for such use. If not, a discussion with your editor might be in order.
Ш Ш Ш
Recent news of poetry you’ll never find on the news page of Poems.Com:
Thursday, August 18, 2005
Wherefore art thou, Romeo?
Of all the Shakespeare productions committed to film, perhaps the most gaudy is Baz Luhrmann’s production of Romeo & Juliet, set in a cinematic future that looks like
Only Pete Postelthwaite’s Father Lawrence comes across as an actor trained in the traditional tones of Shakespeare – his ease with the language actually sounds “off” compared with the mumbling, half-swallowed lines of so many of the younger members of the cast. It may just be their inexperience with Elizabethan English, but it’s so consistent throughout that it comes across as a style, much as the sleek black leather Capulets contrast visually with the beach boy slacker mode of the Montagues. We don’t so much hear these all-too-famous lines as we do overhear them. Luhrmann’s strategy has been to surround this younger cast with a first-rate team of character actors – Paul Sorvino as papa Capulet, Brian Dennehy as the patriarch of the Montagues, M. Emmett Walsh as the apothecary. But the structure of the play is such that few of them have enough dialog or face time to have much impact – Sorvino has one important speech, Dennehy none. The two who make a significant impact are Miram Margolyes as Juliet’s nurse, whose ability to speak Shakespeare with a thick
I’m not a fan of the musical as a form, can’t even remember Luhrmann’s first film, Strictly Ballroom, although I know I went to see it, & actively hated his third, Moulin Rouge. Yet Romeo & Juliet as a music video – and this is the surface texture of the production above all else – works. It empowers the anarchic shifts of the rapidly evolving plot, enables the narrative bridges that work okay on the stage but would normally come across as preposterous in the contemporary medium of film (The protagonists are completely smitten after how many seconds of visual contact? This blue liquid will cause Juliet’s body to feign death for 24 hours?) and enables Luhrmann to open up the set until anything is possible (
“What,” asked Colin, “would Shakespeare have made of such a production?” (One impetus behind viewing so many productions this year was a Shakespeare unit my sons had in seventh grade that included everything but reading or seeing Shakespeare.) What he is really asking has to do with the timeliness of a 16th century text in a 20th century production that is able to project itself prolepticly into some dystopian future. Turned around, it can be understood as a question of the historical specificity of the text. And this in turn harkens back to the set of assumptions that our friends in the NEA have been making this year in funding the production of so many performances of Shakespeare in such out-of-the-way and aesthetically underserved locales as
And of service in general, as the friar & the nurse prove as crucial to the unfolding of events as do the intransigence of the parents or the totalitarian prince. As anyone over the age of 30 – or is it 35 now? – who spent any time in the old Soviet bloc countries should remember, in totalitarian regimes of any type, civil society plays itself out differently. One functions around the official & oppressive mechanisms – here, no one thinks to even tell the parents, even as the friar envisions that the wedding will force the houses of Montague & Capulet to seek a rapprochement. The play is as much about the consequences of the gap between these two realms, the civil & the social, as it is about the individual players. Imagine, if you will, Althusser’s old twin forces of social control, the ideological state apparatus (ISAs), which include the church, the media, even style & subculture, and the repressive state apparatus (RSAs), entailing the courts, the cops, the formal political regime. In Romeo & Juliet, the totalitarian nature of the RSA has cast the ISA adrift & all that befalls Mercutio & Tybalt as well as the title characters can be attributed to the anarchy that rises up from this divorce. That is certainly one possible reading of Shakespeare’s intentions & it’s fascinating that in 1996 Baz Luhrmann, who grew up in rural Australia & has shown no other inclination toward social perception in his films, unleashes this strain in his hyper, loud, but ultimately reasonable rendering of the play.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
One of the grimmer aspects of the response I got to my two notes regarding Amiri Baraka last week – and I received nearly as many emails as there were comments linked publicly to each note – was the overall sense that everyone has already made up their mind vis-à-vis his poetry. That seems to me a terrible trap for any writer, whether their work is regarded positively or negatively. It means that new works will not be looked at with any sort of fresh eye. Regardless of what it says or does, it will be seen as confirming what one already thinks one knows. If suddenly Baraka were to change as a poet, how would we know it?
Interestingly, I got notes telling me that I was an apologist for all the things Baraka has written & said, and notes telling me that my comments were blog equivalent of a drive-by hit on him. I don’t think I had done either, actually. What I’d hoped to do – still have some vain desire in this regard – is simply to pose the question: what if you or I or anyone is not reading him appropriately? What if there is greater continuity in his work than anyone – himself included – has been able to acknowledge? What would that mean? How would that change our reading?
As poets age, many readers come to think they know what this writer’s work means. You read a couple of early books & decide that X fits into this box or under that camp, or is simply not your cup of poetry. They may continue writing for another 30 or 40 years, but perhaps to an increasingly narrow audience as people gradually decided they know what the next John Ashbery or Sharon Olds or Michael McClure poem is going to look, sound & taste like, without having to do the work of reading the text itself.
And there’s no question, certain poets polarize audiences, sometimes in extreme ways. The late d. alexander used to tell the story of how he dedicated an early issue of his magazine Odda Talla to Clayton Eshleman only to have a woman show up at his apartment door waving a pistol in his face, telling him never to do that again. It was never clear to him why.
Eshleman is a polarizing figure, no doubt. He’s a man with strong opinions, with a vision for what he (and just possibly you) should be doing in the world, which he presents in a manner that could only be called blunt. It’s not a stance calculated to curry favor, but it has served Eshleman well, since it is the key to what’s made him one of the great editors of all time. Caterpillar may have been more raw than Sulfur, but it was the first publication to take the Olsonian paradigm to a new place. This gave it a fundamentally different flavor than, say, Coyote’s Journal (after which Caterpillar was to some degree modeled), whose goal had more to articulate projectivism than to inspect it critically. Edited with the help of contributing editor Robert Kelly, Caterpillar between 1967 & 1973 was the first publication to acknowledge the importance of poets such as Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin, Diane Wakoski & Jackson Mac Low. Its special issue on Jack Spicer remains a key text in the evolution of Spicer from a marginal outsider to a central figure in the New American canon. Caterpillar also gave Eshleman a vehicle through which to bring the poets whose work he was translating – Vallejo & Cesaire in particular – into a context that made them available to American poets, really for the first time. Considering Projectivism’s curiously nativist horizon – Paul Blackburn’s translations of the troubadours & of the Poem of the Cid is the major exception – Eshleman’s contribution went beyond his own considerable skills as a translator. It is absolutely impossible to imagine poetry today without Caterpillar’s impact very close to the surface of where we are, even for many poets who may never have even seen a copy.
In 14 books of his own poetry since the mid-1960s, Eshleman has spelled out his vision, both for poetry & of the world, returning again & again to themes that have taken him to the earliest cave paintings & to explore contemporary art & post-Reichian conceptions of the body & psyche. You may not agree with Eshleman – I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone who did – but you have to admit that it all fits together. It’s as complete a vision as any poet ever gets to have.
And that, of course, both its pro & its con. If, reading a book or two, you sense that you “get it,” is there a reason to keep reading? The August issue of the online magazine Ygdrasil is devoted to Clayton’s poetry, and it’s an excellent opportunity to check out his current work & test this very question. Save for brief notes by John Olson &Ygdrasil’s editor, the bulk of the issue is given over to printing seven new poems from a larger manuscript entitled Life in the Folds. Here is the title poem:
Imagination has never met
a non-love it did not love, or
a wall with which it did not become engaged.
I am a convict of light
in the suction panic of the sun.
The range is eternity,
the focus? The halter of time —
a babe in halter we spring up and down,
restrained, eternity invades our dreams,
spreads across the stone,
form trancing form. What is
is inherent in what is not.
Only in the abyss do time and eternity
dissolve into a sinless
source of origin. The first image was
a prompter box, gesturing to
an us spread out like bat wings on
a stone relief. Each second is
vertical with middened hives,
I fish for bait trapped in my own line.
Across the stone, the actor hordes are
streaming ochre, enmassed
their menstrual pour. The tunnel is
death's lager can be drunk there.
Silo hide, imprisoned sand
course my throat, an appled road rent
with all who have responded to daybreak's
roll call of bones.
In the suction panic of the sun, we are
entwisted spectres, our veins
streaming with verdure,
octopodal bursts of infant flowers,
tender calcium — in your
outstretched hand you hold our wheat,
in your torso interior a banquet hall collapses,
a Lethe seeping into mist-dead-dusk.
In comparison, all retwists — I watch
a watch-headed serpent
enter your red breast-hung hall —
on the same mobius strip
we act, via awareness of death,
as if we are alone.
Your head disappeared eons ago,
my tombal shoulders, armless, and dimming with
sallow orchards, writhe stilly
as your charge bolts and
makes beaver shapes in Matta's mind. I spot him
at the horizon's vortex where the panic hits
and the sun takes on stick insect
latitude, filmy cosmic trestle
before which we bend and whisper,
green fuses trapped in a summons that runs
through the known,
now picking up some shred turds of
I participate, in advance,
in future time. My point of reference is
a chorus of strings. I take my leads from
tunnel intestinal macaroni,
ancestor lines wandering
having left their rear-ending hole
— no one has touched bottom,
bottom is a hole at the speed of
engendering poles. The jungle holds up
a mirror, we see we are chalk traceries in
outer space grasped briefly
as elves under amanitas in the garden of
steel-infested self. Traceries
where armored gnomes slash at
menstrual slits. Right now
this raspberry is flooding my mind, a head of
yellow breasts is wearing a Pieta wig. I
set it aside to make way for
an automobile sprouting towers of enraged Iraqis,
like derricks of vegetal steam
they wave in and out of view.
I press no button
but I'm American through and not through,
mind is a jet engine suctioning
imperial drift, attempting to register
an allegiance to dehumanized Palestinians
as well as to the Daughters of Energy
still viable at Le Combel.
Matta now reveals himself:
red disk painted limestone
with a vulvar fold
perpendicular through his being.
A shift, and he is a flayed dog head studying
a vagina on fire as its soot
surges through an amber emporium of astral scree.
It is the profound and beautiful
femininity of the earth
that is always under man attack.
I crawl toward the mirage of an Aurignacian candelabra
still glistening with cosmic dive.
I eat a leech and watch its Whitmanian suckers
unfold, this is wholeness,
or, as close as I'll ever get to a closure
packed with the rubble of
The old obsessions are still all in place. Yet it is worth noting just how very specific Eshleman’s language is. There is nothing rote or bland or abstract here, even if the structure of the poem itself is expository. Yet, in reality, this is perhaps the most “abstract” poem in Ygdrasil selection, or perhaps more accurately, the poem that operates at the highest level of abstraction, in that it is the thematic text, whereas many of the others can be read as extensions or instances evolved out of its theses.
The syntax, as always the case with Eshleman, is modular & sensuous, the vocabulary remarkable. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in what Eshleman is arguing here, I think any poet can learn an enormous amount about writing itself from immersing oneself in Eshleman’s devices & tactics. In much the same way that one can read Michael McClure without being interested in his topics, his sense of the intersection between science & nature, or the history of the Beats per se, simply because there is no other poet better at the pacing of detail, Eshleman offers great riches when it comes to thinking through the relationship between line & syntax, between argument & word choice. And one thing revisiting this selection makes clear, Eshleman’s chops haven’t gone dull in the slightest. The Ygdrasil collection is published on a single web page, which makes it easy to download & save. You should.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
The Tiny is perhaps the first little magazine ever to be named for its typeface, that nine-point Times Roman that always looks smaller than it really is & which even mass market paperbacks have begun to abandon. Maybe it’s a strategy to ensure that the journal will read primarily by younger readers, tho I can’t recall a magazine that deliberately limited its readership since J in the early 1960s made a point of not distributing anywhere east of the
The other thing I want to say is this: consider dolls when you consider smallness. sure, there are scary-lifesize dolls, dolls that walk and talk, but I’m thinking of regular dolls, a few inches high, a foot maybe. Dolls with eyes that open and close, dolls with blank stares, dolls that take your inquiries and turn them right back on you. That kind. You know the ones. You remember. Some people are scared of dolls. This makes sense. All over
Hence, “small” poems. The blank-faced dolls of the literary world. So harmless: stiff armed, blue blue eyes, a bit of ruffle. We all know how that adds up.
Even the smallest doll comes with a carrying case, a wardrobe. They’ve got baggage, is the point, and who do think will carry it? The doll cannot do this. Her hands only look useful. There’s heavy lifting to be done, and that’s where you come in.
There appears to be a pronoun missing from that question in the last paragraph, which is one of the ongoing risks of the small press (webzines have the advantage of always being correctible). Not quite half of the contributors here are bloggers, as is Gina Myers, one of the editors. (Gabriella Torres, Myers partner in this project, is not.) Names that will be familiar from the blogroll to the left include Jim Behrle, Del Ray Cross, Noah Eli Gordon, Shafer Hall, Geof Huth, Erica Kaufman, Mark Lamoureux, Aaron McCollough, Daniel Nester, Katey Nicosia, Danielle Pafunda, Sarah Rehmer, & Maureen Thorson. All of these poets are names known to me & while there is a fair amount of good work of theirs here, I find that I have an experienced that I’ve noted before with small press zines: the people who surprise me most are the ones I’ve never ever heard of before. Mary Ann Samyn would be one case in point – she has several complicated, hard-edged pieces here. Travis Nichols is another, with several short sharp prose poems from a sequence called “from
This is perhaps the most important thing that a little magazine can accomplish, yet at the same time it’s predicated on a double movement – the people whose work is new to me has to stand out & have some kind of edge. But also the people whose work I already have to know has to “fit in” with what I know about their poetry already. Of the poets who are known to me already here, the most ambitious pieces – the ones that push at me – are those by Huth, especially his essay which has some of the gall of a manifesto (“Concrete poetry was the first world-wide movement in poetry….”), and by Lamoureux, whose pieces here take on a formal rhetoric I haven’t heard much of since the days of Robert Duncan.
Part of what this reveals is that The Tiny does have a visible aesthetic, more given to works that edge toward pushing the envelope, relatively little of the 17th generation NY School pieces one sees around in other rags both physical & virtual. The Tiny appreciates complexity, a dimension that seems to unite a number of otherwise disparate poets here. This is to the good, since the journal clearly isn’t part of a regional scene as such – there’s probably a preponderance of poets from the Northeast here, especially
Does The Tiny constitute a community? Only in the provisional sense that an audience that forms at a reading, then disperses again into the night, might be said to be one. But the fact that so many of the poets here are trying out a more difficult poetics suggests that a lot of them will have a fair amount to say to one another. If they read one another, not just here but anywhere they find each other's work, who knows what might be possible? And that would be much more than a tiny contribution to American letters, regardless of point size.
Monday, August 15, 2005
Alexandre Rodrigues portrays Rocket
caught between two gangs & two worlds
in City of
When I reviewed Assassination Tango on July 27, I noted that the film was designed to have its audience root for the assassin. Since then, I’ve seen three films, ranging in quality from pretty good to great, all of which are premised on the audience’s ability to empathize with outwardly unsympathetic characters: Nicolle Kassell’s The Woodsman, which stars Kevin Bacon as a recently paroled child molester trying to get by; City of God, by Fernando Meirelles (with some co-direction by Kátia Lund), which chronicles three generations of street gangs in the slums of Rio; and The Sea Inside by Alejandro Amenábar, about a quadriplegic fighting for the right to commit suicide. All three films did well on the festival circuit & The Sea Inside went on to win an Oscar for best foreign film. Indeed, the Internet Movie Database, the most comprehensive & widely used film site on the web, lists The Sea Inside as ranked among the top 200 films by registered site users, a considerable feat for a site that gets 27 million hits every month. City of
The Woodsman received awards at four different festivals, as well as Movieline’s “Breakthrough of the Year” award for its director and a special mention for excellence in filmmaking from the National Board of Review, opened at a few art houses, then went straight to DVD. Either distributors doubted that audiences were ready to flock to a tale of a sympathetic pedophile (at least one not portrayed in the titillating manner of a Lolita) or perhaps that audiences weren’t ready for an intense psychological performance from the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon. Bacon, in fact, is superb as an emotionally shut-down, deeply depressed individual slow to trust anyone after having done a 12-year-bit in prison for his behavior. He gets a job at a lumberyard & finds a shabby rental directly across the street from a grammar school. During the course of the film, he comes close to re-offending, stopping short when his intended target reveals that she’s already an incest victim. He takes out his frustration on another pedophile he’s spotted. And he finds a lover in another lumberyard worker, portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick, who is herself an incest survivor with a complicated attitude toward her multiple abusers.
The Woodsman began as a play and its strengths are all in its performances – Hannah Pilkes as Bacon’s intended 12-year-old victim earned a “debut performance” nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards¹ but she’s almost required to be terrific in order to keep up with the intense portrayals offered by Bacon & Sedgwick. Bacon does his best work here in close-ups, just through the use of his sad blue eyes. But The Woodsman’s limitation is also that it began as a play, a work of fiction. At some level, there is nothing about Bacon’s character Walter that the director does not know & isn’t willing to offer up. Indeed, in the film’s key scene, Pilkes’ revelation to Bacon is a degree of intimacy unimaginable among strangers in a park. But it’s the only way Kassell can show what’s going on inside both characters. That Pilkes & Bacon pull it off is a testament to their acting, not to the script. Still, it’s an excellent film, very possibly Bacon’s best. That it went almost directly to DVD in a summer that offered filmgoers such trash as a remake of Bewitched, the sequel to Deuce Bigalo & such rehashed action fare as Stealth & The Island is a sad comment on the “not smart enough to watch Barney” perception film distributors have of current audiences.
If the weakness of The Woodsman lies in its lack of opacity, City of God offers the autobiography of
The value of the position in the narrative is that it enables the sociopath Li’l Zé to remain opaque – there is nothing sympathetic about a chronic mass murderer & Li’l Zé’s somewhat lame attempts to pose himself as the capitalist entrepreneur rationalizing vice in his slum – and it is definitely his slum before the film is over – do nothing to endear him to viewers. Indeed, there are key scenes in the film, both early & late, in which other gangsters attempting to extract themselves from the violent underworld being constructed by Li’l Zé end up dead.
The secret of City of God’s success, I think, lies in two things: Li’l Zé’s opacity at the heart of the tale & the film’s structural climax in which Li’l Zé’s reign comes to an end, not through the confrontation with a rival gang lead by one Carrot (the ostensible primary conflict in the film), but because the next generation of gangsters, the Runts, prove unimaginably murderous even to the hardened sociopath. What goes around, comes around could be a synopsis of the plot, a story that would prove horrific if not leavened with the comic persona of its “autobiographer,” Rocket. That a film this violent can be alternately tender & funny isn’t necessarily film news – that’s the whole formula behind Bonnie & Clyde – but City of God ramps up all sides of the equation for a generation raised on contemporary film gore.
The Sea Inside, in contrast, is the quietest of films. It wasn’t written as a play, but certainly could have been, given that its lead character, Ramón Sampedro – luminously portrayed by Javier Bardem, one of the great actors of our time – is a quadriplegic & isn’t going anywhere. The key to this film is that the protagonist is driven by a desire that nobody, not even he, can fully comprehend: he wants to die. The film’s structure follows his attempt to force the courts in
If the protagonist’s desire is opaque even to himself, the film also enables us to glimpse just how much emotional violence & damage Sampedro’s quest does to all those around him. Indeed, much of the film’s dynamic is the tension of just how much this hurts everyone around Sampedro & how he is incapable of seeing this. Anyone who has had an experience or two with suicides should know just what I mean – it’s a profoundly destructive & violent act, regardless of how it’s carried out, one that is fundamentally impossible for anyone who has not walled themselves off inside their own pain. At the same time, Sampedro is warm & loving & often funny. What makes this film genuinely great is how it embodies the gap between these two things. What’s important is not what these characters know about themselves, but what they don’t.
¹ I may be biased. Pilkes is in the same grade with my sons at school.