Saturday, September 10, 2005

 

Ron: To blog, or not to blog: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the sitemeter to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous trackbacks,
Or to block sender against a sea of troubles,
And by blocking end them? To die: to link to that dying;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural hits
That blog is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd and linked to. To die, to sleep;
To link to that sleep: perchance to dreamblog: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what posts may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal blogosphere,
Must give us pause: blah de blah,
a bare bodkin dot blogspot dot com!
To grunt and sweat while reading Josh Corey,
But that the dread of something after blog,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No googler returns, puzzles the firewall!
Thus comment fields does make cowards of us all and—

Curtis: THE POST AVANTS ARE HERE!

These immortal lines are taken from Jim Behrle’s That Silliman Sitcom: The Pilot, the greatest something – perhaps spoof – at least since the invention of Corn Flakes. You can read the script here. You can actually see the performance here. Note that it takes two blog messages to get the whole script in. Note also Jim Behrle’s carefully planned costume. And I definitely recommend downloading the video to your own PC to get maximum visual quality, such as it is. My one complaint is that the actor portraying Jordan Davis could have been a little more believable.

Oh, and for the record, no, I don’t eat Corn Flakes.



Friday, September 09, 2005

 

For years, people have been telling me what a wonderful poet Lisa Robertson is. Tho I thought her work was competent & smart, I never really got it – really, seriously got it – until I read Rousseau’s Boat, a transcendent chapbook published by Meredith Quartermain’s Nomados press sometime last year. Rousseau’s Boat won the 2004 bp Nichol chapbook award, or so the Nomados website informs us, and the book certainly deserves every hurrah it receives.

Rousseau’s Boat consists of four works that fit together so well that it seems pointless to think of them as separate pieces. Two of these, the first and last, are quite short, just one page apiece, as those framing the two longer poems, functioning almost as introduction & epilog. Tonally, they work that way as well & the final poem, “This is the beginning of Utopia / Its material is time.” – yes, a two-line title (complete with quirky punctuation), not as extreme perhaps as Geraldine Kim’s “real” title for her Povel, which runs on for pages, but another sign that titles are starting to move out on their own as formal (& formally constituted) elements of the poem – is brilliant in & of itself, so that the reader, already riding the high induced by the previous pieces, leaves the book on the most intense terms possible.

But the core of Rousseau’s Boat is the two longer central (or inner) texts, “Face/” and “Utopia/” – in both instances I read those slashes as indicating a linebreak with no second line (anticipating, if you will, the second line of the last poem’s title). Or perhaps extending the use of slashes from the first poem, “Passivity,” a text that otherwise appears to be a block of prose, e.g.,

Let’s be sparkling for them. Let’s fluff up our/ pigments. Let’s know fibres. Let’s be a dog./ I wanted to talk about necessity/ and ambience. I wanted to know about/ change.

There are 27 such slashes or breaks in “Passivity,” the final one the last character of its text. The ambiguity this poses to the idea of the line is raised again in the two longer poems, where longer lines are treated like prose paragraphs, running flush left over onto a second or even third line. This sounds ordinary enough, but visually the one-sentence/one-paragraph equation feels quite disturbing – destabilizing any residual sense of the line’s metric or quantitative or logical fixity. Across the ten pages of “Face/” and sixteen of “Utopia/,” the effect accumulates, so that the relatively traditional lines of the final poem (asserted by nothing more than a capital at the left margin) hits with full force.

The idea that a title or text could end on a linebreak graphically demonstrates what couldn’t be seen by one ending with a blank space – that our written language is actually structured so as to prohibit this from happening – the space at the line’s end simply doesn’t “exist.” To call it into being as Robertson does here with the linebreak is to open being itself up to investigation. Which is, as I read it, precisely the intent of her texts & the obsession with time & utopia.

The first two texts here make great use of the word “I.” Of the 36 sentences in “Passivity,” 12 begin with the first person singular and it appears in three others.¹ It appears so often at the start of a sentence in “Face/” that it reminds me of my own “Berkeley” & all the other – mostly later – poems that begin every line with “I.”² Unless one gets hung up with sentence/paragraph distinctions, “Face/” will be read – as I think it should be – as a single ten-page stanza, every other sentence of which appears in italics (precisely, I think, to foreground the formal sentence/line structure).

A man’s muteness runs through this riot that is my sentence.
I am concerned here with the face and hands and snout.
All surfaces strum dark circumstance of utterance.
What can I escape?
Am I also trying to return?
Not the private bucket, not the 7000 griefs in the bucket of
each cold clammy word.
But just as strongly I willed myself toward this neutrality.
I have not loved enough or worked.
What I want do to here is infiltrate sincerity.
I must only speak of what actually happens.

If this book has a topic sentence, that first line above is it. It throws open any number of structural oppositions: self/other, male/female, silence/noise, stillness/turmoil, language/(?). The intensity of “I” here underscores the sense of text’s final line –

I do feel some urgency.

– but it hardly prepares one for its withdrawal from “Utopia/,” where it occurs just 52 times in some 370 “lines,”³ including contracted forms – I’m, I’ve – and one sentence that deploys it thrice. Thus when this text says – as it does twice within 16 sentences (17 “lines”) on p. 31 – “It is me,” the reader sits up & notices.

I’m not going to venture a close or thematic reading here – the text is too rich, it would be easy to slip into something the length of a dissertation & still only crack there surface here. Rousseau’s Boat, suffice it to say, is an intense, complex, emotionally & intellectually exhausting experience. True or not – it’s at least theoretically feasible that this could have been done with a fictive “I” – the reader comes away with a sense of having gotten to know the author on the deepest, most intimate levels. Either way, Rousseau’s Boat is one great book.

 

 

¹ I’m aware of course that 27, 36, 12 & 3 are all divisible by three – there’s a lot of formal inbuilding in this otherwise “spontaneous” & free-form seeming text.

² The earliest of which I’m aware is Jack Collom’s “Brag,” which I believe dates from 1967, predating ”Berkeley” by about six years.

³ One becomes conscious that it is not possible to tell if there is a blank space at the end – and perhaps even the start – of any single page in the text.



Thursday, September 08, 2005

 

There are different kinds of minimalism. One of the most common, thanks to Robert Grenier &, behind him, Robert Creeley & Louis Zukofsky, focuses closely on minute linguistic interactions, magnifying them in effect for closer inspection. Some haiku, on the other hand, tends more toward a depiction or scenic effect. A philosophic mode of minimalism treats it as tho the structure of a haiku held the properties of a syllogism. In each instance, tho, whether one line or as many as five or six, the miniature poem performs by reducing the number of choices the reading mind can make, so as to foreground those that remain.

Chuck Stebelton, the new literary events coordinator at Milwaukee’s justly famous Woodland Pattern, still the best poetry bookstore in the USA, practices a kind of minimalism of the middle ground, something I either have not seen before, or least have never noted as such. What I know of Stebelton’s work consists of a single chapbook, Precious, published by Answer Tag Home Press (the logo is <Answer>, a bit of HTML humor that might not be recognized by readers half a century hence) in an edition of just 75 copies.¹ Precious – there are so many bad puns that one can make with that title that I hope to avoid them all – consists of a single work in five numbered sections, each of which contains six (also numbered) parts. Only one of these 30 sections exceeds two lines – 25 have only one.

What interests me most about Stebelton’s strategies are the sections that would appear to be less than a complete thought. Thus, for example, the first two parts of III:

i
Brevity’s lure,

ii
tells them until then. They’ve gone native
in the West’s most participatory study.

One reads “Brevity’s lure,” both as a text in itself and as part of a larger, somewhat more opaque (or fragmentary) sentence. But how much do we trust our reading? Not as much, perhaps, as the word whose syllables cross the chasm between sections iv & v of part IV, which together spell second. But perhaps more than the gap earlier in that same part IV betwixt city & boats as in our bikes antiqued the city /// boats.

The way words integrate into themselves, syntax, & image schemes isn’t all that Stebelton is about. The whole section with boats reads as follows:

boats. Modal

The next section, starting with a preposition, angles off in a different direction altogether. Indeed, run together from that point forward, part IV would read:

Modal to sea in a sieve, second star on the right and straight on till morning –

Ending on that em dash, a sentence with rather a Maurice Sendak air to it. What, Stebelton seems to be asking, is the relation of these simplest elements of the poem to their counterparts of language & meaning? A good question, generally well executed.

Maybe Stebelton isn’t the greatest poet ever – a line (or section) that reads simply

I come to bury Ohio, not to blame him

leaves me cold. But I am intrigued in how Stebelton is tackling these other small formal problems. They are where you can see him thinking in (& with) the work. And in such spaces, brevity’s lure is very bright indeed.

 

¹ Tougher Disguises appears to have published a larger collection, Circulation Flowers, but I’ve not seen that book.



Wednesday, September 07, 2005

 

Having watched the chaotic personal style of Terry Gilliam documented in Lost in La Mancha, I’m amazed that anyone in Hollywood would extend him the budget to make a motion picture. This is also apparently what the Brothers Weinstein thought when they advanced him some $90 million to make his version of The Brothers Grimm. They nixed Gilliam’s choice for a lead – Johnny Depp wasn’t deemed famous enough (this was pre-Pirates of the Caribbean) – and also Gilliam’s selection of Samantha Morton as the female lead. They fired his cinemaphotographer halfway through the production & refused to let Gilliam put a prosthetic nose on Matt Damon’s face – they wanted a mug front & center that said “movie star!” Gilliam is said to have been so frustrated & furious that, once the shooting was complete, he went & made another motion picture – Tideland, due out later this month – before sitting down to edit Grimm.

The miracle is that this film works, better even than Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (which we watched one evening at our cabin south of Lost River in West Virginia), tho maybe not so well as 12 Monkeys or The Fisher King – and certainly not as well as Brazil, Gilliam’s masterpiece. Most of the critics reported on the pre-release squabbling between Gilliam & the folks at Miramax & simply missed the motion picture in front of their eyes. Since Gilliam is the sort who makes films for people who like to think, even when it’s a farce, the reviews ensured that it would open weakly, failing to dislodge a pedestrian Hollywood comedy from its top spot in the weekend earnings. Once the film has gone global, moved to DVD & been shown on TV a couple of times, Miramax won’t lose a penny. But they won’t make the megamillions they’d obviously hoped for, either. And one suspects that the 65-year-old Gilliam won’t be working for Miramax again anytime soon.

More than any other film maker since Fassbinder, Gilliam cherishes chaos. If the opening moments of a great movie are characterized by forcing viewers have to make sense out of a world in which unfamiliar elements are occurring right in front of their (our) very eyes – one could build a quite credible theory that the secret to great cinema is just sustaining that sense of bewilderment, the moment before the parsimony principle has clicked into place & given us our predictable genre with its anticipated moments & ultimate conclusion – Gilliam’s strategy is to churn up as much hoopla as is possible from beginning to end, behind which the narrative machine can, from time to time, be glimpsed in motion. None of his films are about character & the plots themselves border on the gratuitous. Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo in Fear & Loathing is an amazing performance, precisely because Del Toro has almost nothing to work from other than a beer belly (acquired apparently just for the role) & an equally resourceful Johnny Depp to bounce off. Matt Damon & Heath Ledger (probably best known as the actor who portrayed Billy Bob Thornton’s suicidal son in Monsters Ball) don’t have the depth or chops of Depp or Del Toro, but they do have a major advantage in that the film’s reliance on computer generated (CG) effects appear to have forced Gilliam into story-boarding a plot together.

But plot & narrative are two different things. And hardly anybody makes this more self-evident than does Gilliam. Narrative is the unfolding of meaning in time, whereas plot is the sequencing of events in a referenced world projected by the work of art. Plot, Gilliam seems to be arguing, is necessary but not terribly important. What’s important is what’s happening right now in front of you. Thus it is not that the child is being spirited away to become the necessary 12th part of the sleeping queen’s centuries-old spell that matters, but how her eyes disappear when they are taken over by the emerging (if Ghostbuster referencing) horror that is the Gingerbread Man.

This insistence on the present detail is a Gilliam trademark, one that is accentuated by his preference for weird angle shots, minimal lighting, crowded sets, with unexpected faces filling up the entire screen (even better if something busy is going on as well, such as the emergence of many little bugs from a cuff or mouth). His films never pause for a breather & one reaction that you can see happens is that some viewers (Roger Ebert is pretty clear about this in his own reaction to the film) take their own psychic pause, as if the constant bustle ejects them from their own viewing experience. They may not – as Ebert obviously did not – ever return completely to the film.

Gilliam films are thus exhausting & not everyone makes it all the way. The Brothers Grimm is unusual in this regard in that it’s a reasonably compact project – one could even call it “neat” by Gilliam standards. Part of how this works is, I suspect, the result of one of Miramax’s interventions. Matt Damon is a stolid, phlegmatic type compared with Johnny Depp, the human chameleon. It is precisely Damon’s pint-sized version of Robert Mitchum at the center of all this rumpus that acts as an ongoing focal point, a still center amid the ongoing circus onscreen. To some degree, that is what Del Toro gave to Fear & Loathing¸ tho it’s not Del Toro’s basic style.

It’s always interesting to see who does, or does not, get it among Gilliam’s supporting cast. Just as Tobey Maguire as was completely clueless as to his role’s function in Fear & Loathing, Peter Stormare, normally a great character actor (his role as the back-alley eye doctor in Minority Report was one of that film’s high points, and he remains famous as the gangster who fed Steve Buscemi to the wood chipping machine in Fargo), can’t seem to figure out who he’s supposed to be. In fact, just as Maguire should have represented the “sane everyman” aghast at the antics of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear & Loathing, Maguire played it as tho he were a reject from a Dumb & Dumber casting call, Stormare is the one figure whose character – an Italian adjunct of the French occupation troops in 19th century Germany¹ - actually changes over the course of the film. We need to see that in order to understand that the lack of development on the part of the others is not an accident. But Stormare is all over the map, as if he were a different character in virtually every scene.

That’s a risk that Gilliam’s improvisational approach to movie making maximizes. If he doesn’t get away with it 100 percent of the time in The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam manages to do so often enough. Somebody some day will no doubt offer a deep Lacanian reading of all the psychic lightning bolts Gilliam is hurling here – the film’s basic message is that fairy tales are rooted in real lives & that, read literally, they can be horrific because the reality they reflect is as frightening as what happens to a small town when twelve small girls go missing. But I wonder who, exactly, will ever see that movie, even tho it’s the one right in front of us.

 

¹ The idea of setting the film in “French-occupied Germany” is a typical Gilliam gesture, so wry that you almost miss it.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

 

Be there or be square, Jim Behrle says. Actually, I suspect you could be both. Silliman’s blog as a sitcom? I envision Olivier doing Hamlet, myself.



 

The autumn before my boys were born, Krishna and I rented a small cabin in the Sierras for a few days. It was the first time in a relationship that was then 13 years old in which we had actually taken some form of an “ordinary” vacation that was not also part of a reading tour or a flight home to visit the in-laws, or some combination thereof – I’d even used a reading to finance part of our honeymoon. The other alternatives had been literally to hitchhike up to Point Reyes, hiking in perhaps after a night at a bed &breakfast in Olema, camping the next night, then spending the third in a motel in Stinson Beach after hiking out the south end of the park.

The arrangement always made taking a significant number of books along problematic. Hitchhiking with a backpack & camping equipment pretty much limited me to three – two books of poetry (I remember one time it was Wendell Berry & John Keats) – plus whatever novel I was reading, and of course my notebook in which to write. Reading tours and trips to the in-laws weren’t much better, tho in fact I might take along as six or eight books of poetry along.

But that trip to the Sierras in 1991 was different in that, for the first time, we were driving somewhere in our brand new two-door Mazda 323, which meant that our storage felt limitless.¹ I must have brought along a dozen books & quickly found that the timeless quality of days away from work made for a perfect reading environment. Since then, we have gone on any number of car trips, but have learned always took along a lot of books & to try to build in as many days with little or nothing to do as possible.²

Yet each time, especially on two-week trips, I’ve largely run out of reading material, or at least run painfully short. I really hate having just one or two books of poetry to read at a time – it feels unnatural to me, I’m often in the middle of dozens at any given moment. Finding worthy volumes of poetry on holiday has meant buying a copy of Evangeline in the gift shop of the Digby Ferry as it crossed the Bay of Fundy, or being ecstatic at coming across a George Bowering title in a quaint little tourist shop in Victoria, BC. And I’m sure I’ve bought more School of Quietude volumes on vacation under just such circumstances than at any other time.

This year, however, I’ve tried something different, bringing along not one but two large backpacks filled with books, 37 in all, ranging from chapbooks to Shakespeare’s sonnets to a recent (but not the latest) Anselm Hollo “selected” & the big Lee Harwood collected that I’m still working my way through. A few books I’ve read before – Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed, David Melnick’s Eclogs. And two have prerequisites, one a novel by Roberto Bolaño I won’t begin until I complete Marjorie Perloff’s memoir of coming to America, the other being the second big volume of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts, an incentive to completing the final sections of the first.

By the trip’s end I will have finished some 17 books, gotten more than halfway through Bolaño’s Distant Star, and read major portions of all the others. I’ll make note of some – not necessarily all – of my reading over the next couple of weeks.

 

¹ That sense of infinite space within a two-door hatchback disappeared quickly enough once we had twins to wrestle into car seats in back. This Mazda is still the car I’m driving most of the time, having gotten over 120,000 miles on the original clutch.

² Save for four travel days, that was our modus operandi this year as well. Our only other busy days consisted of one spent at Antietam followed by watching the recording of a show of Moutain Stage, and another spent partly birdwatching, partly being on the beach & finally watching The Brothers Grimm at an Ocean City cinema.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

 

The American Red Cross

 

“Some horror is beyond words.” I wrote that sentence in this space last December 31 as the horror of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean was becoming known. I feel that same way today. To be on vacation – as least as we do it in our family – is to be willfully dislocated from the news for awhile. Our general principle has been no TV, no newspapers, no daily sweeping through the news sites on the internet. I barely watched any Olympics last summer, and then only because my brother in Sequim was glued to his television for the duration.

But last Sunday, as we got our morning meal in the “breakfast room” of a Comfort Suite in Martinsburg, WV, the room’s television was already speaking of Katrina’s projected impact in apocalyptic terms. So, when we found ourselves late Monday at last in our rental in Bethany Beach, Delaware, we tuned in for a week of horror. Even driving around, we found the local NPR station & listened as All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel refused on Thursday to accept Michael Chertoff’s denial that there were any people waiting for aid at the New Orleans Convention Center, or that there were dead bodies lying unattended on the streets of New Orleans. Five minutes after Chertoff denied the problem multiple times, his office called NPR and acknowledged that Chertoff had “been updated” on the situation at the Convention Center and that Homeland Security and its agencies were “working tirelessly” to help the people there. Food, water & transportation out of there finally arrived on Friday.

The Convention Center is a site that has special meaning for me – a significant portion of “Quindecagon,” part of The Alphabet, was written in a hotel directly attached to the center. And I’ve stayed there more than once when traveling to New Orleans. The horrific coverage on CNN of the death & despair there was worse because I recognized every setting, even the little brick shops across the street that had been emptied out so that the living might survive.

It is not yet time to put all of this in perspective, or to assign blame for the utter collapse of the governmental infrastructure that made this catastrophe happen. We should focus right now on supporting those who have lost everything, and saving whoever remains to be saved. If you haven’t made a donation yet to the Red Cross, Oxfam or another qualified relief organization, do so now.

Later, when rescue helicopters aren’t still dropping relief workers to chop through roofs in search of survivors in the middle of a flood zone, and when we know whether or not this really is the deadliest natural disaster in American history – my mind keeps turning to the Galveston Flood of 1900, when over 8,000 people died thanks to what we would now call a category five hurricane there will be plenty of time to assess and assign blame. Right now we are still in the middle of such an event that 200 of the 1,500 members of the New Orleans police force have either quit or gone missing, while two others have already committed suicide (a common problem among rescuers dealing with overwhelming post-traumatic stress).

I will say one thing, though, at this early stage. The fault for this disaster doesn’t belong entirely to George W. Bush, even tho he and his thugocracy of a cabinet seem to have blundered for days before they understood that they had a problem. Nor is it entirely those of state and local officials. The levees in New Orleans were built to withstand a level 3 hurricane. Who among us doesn’t believe that every location on the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern U.S. isn’t going someday to have to deal with a direct hit from a level 5?

Who in San Francisco doesn’t believe that the city will someday be hit with an earthquake every bit as large as the 9.0 that struck southeast Asia last December, setting off the tsunami? Yet there are thousands of San Franciscans living today in brick buildings. In a major earthquake, the mortar between bricks crumbles and the building simply falls on your head, World Trade Center style. That’s another disaster just waiting to happen. Nobody does anything about it because nobody wants to displace the 30,000 or so people who are – let’s face it – the least economically viable people in San Francisco, the least able to cope with that sort of dislocation. Every metropolitan area in the country has some pending disaster on a like level just waiting to happen. On a clear day, you can see the steam plumes from the Limerick nuclear power plant’s cooling towers in our skies here. In case of a meltdown, all the refugees from Pottstown & Phoenixville are supposed to crowd into our high school auditorium. Good fucking luck.

In the 1970s, a very evil man by the name of Howard Jarvis started the tax revolt that has driven the political right’s economic platform from Ronald Reagan – the president who claimed that government was the problem, not the solution – to George W. In between, more than a few others, such as Bill Clinton, have found it convenient to pander to the same general forces. All governmental institutions in the U.S., regardless of level or purpose, are underfunded. We have troops in Iraq buying armor with their own meager funds. We have a space program today that couldn’t safely land a man on the moon if it tried. We have a president who cut flood relief funds for New Orleans by 44 percent. In the 27 years since California put into place Proposition 13, it has seen its education programs – the very state institution on which California’s wealth has been built – nearly starved to extinction.

The disaster in New Orleans was not unforeseeable. But nobody has ever put the resources in place that would be capable of responding to something on this scale, even if it were done correctly. That it was done badly only exacerbates the catastrophe that was lurking all along.

It’s not just the politicians here who are to blame. It’s the fearful, greedy, inner tyrant in every one of us. Every politician – and every voter – who ever voted for a tax cut has blood on their hands this week. Those who have built careers on this may have a little more, as do those who have funded them, but it’s a problem for which we all have to take responsibility. The stench of it is the smell of death rising up from southern Louisiana & Mississippi, rubbing our own noses in our collective handiwork.



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