Saturday, September 24, 2005

 

David Melnick’s “Hasty Fields” reminds me of how image schema can set up large areas of connotation within a given work of poetry. The poem, on the face of it, seems relatively abstract, including (and somewhat early for this) elements of found language focused on the materiality of the language itself. Yet I read this as palpably a portrait of New York City, 1968. My rationale for this is the one concrete reference in the poem – Andrew Cordier / simpleton – and how it turns or evokes aspects of other, more abstract tones hidden within other words. Thus, by the poem’s end, the “brawning arms” allude back to the “mantle / broken,” conceivably even a rare sports reference for Melnick – it may be the only one in his entire oeuvre – to Mickey Mantle, the Yankee center fielder who retired that year.

Cordier was a career diplomat, an American who was a founding executive of the United Nations (and who served as an informal or backchannel emissary for the JFK administration to UN officials & perhaps others) who had gone on to become the dean for the School for International Affairs at Columbia University, a program that was a flashpoint for anti-war efforts in the 1960s, targeted by SDS as an instance of Defense Department money on college campuses (and very possibly a conduit into careers in the CIA). The 1968 student protests at Columbia were among the most prominent in the country that year, leading (for example) to one sit-in where Life magazine took a two-page photo spread of a student sitting at Columbia University President Grayson Kirk’s desk, feet up, with (if I remember correctly) one of Kirk’s cigars. That student was poet David Shapiro, one of Melnick’s friends in New York. In any event, Kirk resigned soon thereafter and was replaced on an interim basis by . . . Andrew Cordier, who held the job for two years. SDS leader Mark Rudd once characterized Cordier as an “imperialist joke” & the term “simpleton” here reflects that rhetoric.

A name on this order stains every other word of the poem, much of which appears to be a veiled discussion of the downsides of privilege. Today the phrase has become opaque, but in its time, Cordier’s presence here tilted everything. The New York it conveys sets up how, for example we will read a more open & neutral reference to British royalty a page later. These schema set up how the other terms in the poem are perceived. Thus, for example, the allusion to Mickey Mantle is (at best) a pun, a secondary connotation pushed forward with a wink, tho that echo would appear to be its function in the poem as such.

I’m not proposing, for example, that one should read this (or any) Melnick poem with the same sort of exegetical excavation methods Hugh Kenner brought to the work of Pound & Joyce, because that clearly is not where Melnick is going with the poem. But, rather, how in a field of otherwise abstract language certain interpretations are privileged, foregrounded, over others. Thus, “hasty fields,” the phrase, means what? The image I carry with me is of student-police confrontations on the claustrophobic quad at Columbia. One side of an alternative life circa 1968, against which the rich kid junky Warhol-hanger on is another very different mode of rebellion.



Friday, September 23, 2005

 

“Hasty Fields” is not necessarily the most typical poem from David Melnick’s Eclogs. It is, however, one that I could imagine setting in HTML without driving myself completely over the edge.

hasty fields
     eight soldiers
          perturbations

field pieces
     Andrew Cordier
          simpleton

sensual music
     not a
California
          occupied

          a good deal
of her time in recent weeks as she found fewer excuses and excused more and more of her little faults through daily habits of mental circumambulation; I found fewer of her

Ay que hombre

allowing much of a
     pill grown
          antedates inc.

should be a lot of fund
     epending on the will

& imagination of the
          host and hostesses

          where your money is

tackle some
     one of the two

          you / are very wise
          ease the feeling
          anxiously from door to door

number of teeth on view

she was a
     girl
          I can a

ssure you
     Saturday the b
          eauty

(sorts) wonder

Winter
     Buckingham Palace

          merchant family

slow & painful
     gout
          tortured him

we so warm
     -ly approve
          refused to enter

only too plainly
     left his mantle
          broken

borrowed (it
     neighborly
          considerate

broke
     through
          his brawning arms

          garage
             door
                opium
                   system



Thursday, September 22, 2005

 

The first book I ever blurbed must have been David Melnick’s 1972 Ithaca House volume, Eclogs. Would that all of my blurbs stand up to 33 years of hindsight half so well as this:

One’s immediate attraction to these poems lies in their clear craft and almost infinite suggestiveness. Yet beneath this dreamy, erotic world of glimpses awaits a powerful and complex machine, a structure which can be perceived through the jeweled surfaces if only the reader will understand the title of “These are the Aspects of the Perfect” to be a statement of literal fact. Uniting for the first time the “French idiom” of the New York School and the field composition techniques of Duncan and Olson, Melnick has achieved the last significant goal of modernism and begun a major career.

There’s hubris, no doubt, in the idea that modernism has (or had) goals, let alone ranking them, and yet in an important way, I still feel that I got this exactly right. Eclogs is a hinge text, one of the last great books to accept the premises of the New American Poetry &, in the same instant, one of the first to assert a new one, one that envisions materiality for language as physical as paint is to a painting or stone to sculpture. It’s a close kin to Creeley’s Pieces or Ashbery’s Three Poems, tho far more Zukofskyan than either of them might have thought possible back in the early ‘70s.

Composed of ten poems – the book is just 39 pages long – whose airy open field physicality belies the density of the writing itself, Eclogs is at one level completely autobiographical, yet seen & heard thru such minute fragments that one focuses instead on their presence more than on what lay hidden behind the arras veil. This is a focus that crystallizes in Melnick’s next volume, PCOET, and in his homophonic translation of the first three books of The Iliad, Men in Aïda. By these later works, reference has moved simultaneously in two different directions: toward Homer, through the ear, but toward a ludic surface more filled with the names of friends & other poets than any text of the late Ted Berrigan. It’s a double-edge that one finds first in Eclogs, most immediately in its third poem, “These are the Aspects of the Perfect” ( a title that anticipates Rodrigo Toscano’s Partisans by a quarter century), with its frank equation of sex with economic exchange & posed questions asking if in fact “Fresno (poets” – there is no later closed parenthesis – don’t represent the same principle. Melnick is thus capable of being the most playful & serious of poets, the texts themselves oscillating between pure joy & the deepest depression, each moment inextricably bound to the other.

All of these books – not to mention the work never printed as such – have become difficult to obtain. Happily, there’s a project at hand that should see them eventually issued as a single volume, tho possibly not for another year or three. When that volume does appear, those who have barely read Melnick are in for a treat.



Wednesday, September 21, 2005

 

Rachel Loden’s The Richard Nixon Snow Globe is a brilliantly crafted suite of 20 poems that take – with some generous exceptions – the 1970s as their image base & the poetics of roughly the same period as a cue to form. As well executed as it is, there’s a curiously retro feel to the project as a whole, one that reminds me in part of the invariable fallacy of the well-wrought urn. The next generation can always do it better, cleaner, more sharply defined than any generation that leads by making it new. A poem like “My Subject” or “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Station” will always outshine its model¹, but in do so can never be its equal.

Loden attempts to overturn the problem thematically, suggesting at some level that Bush II’s regime is an echo of the Nixon cabal. But in spite of the presence of Rumsfeld & Cheney on both playing fields, the analogy doesn’t hold. The Nixon administration was never a kleptocracy, which is all Bush II would have been save for the bungled wars on Iraq & Louisiana.

Loden’s second strategy extends the work out beyond the field of the Nixon regime altogether: Hugh Hefner, Cinderella, a crime scene on the San Francisco peninsula, notes from a surveillance. Individually, as with “Miss October,” these can be among the most effective poems in the book. Thematically, tho, they cause it to feel more diffuse. And the book as book is never stronger than when it’s focusing on the complex, overwhelmingly dark persona of Mr. Nixon, a voice Loden captures with spooky accuracy.

Indeed, at some level, this book is not unlike Nixon himself – brilliant, frustrating, ultimately self-defeating. It makes one wonder how it might be done differently, say, by focusing on the current set of gangsters defiling the ornate upholstery of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There are figures in the present regime every bit as complicated & conflicted as any in Nixon’s environs – Colin Powell & Condi Rice in particular. Kissinger was hardly more of a Rasputin figure than Karl Rove. Rove, tho, as a personal figure, is the essence of bland. He radiates pudgy softness with an undertone of resentment as his driving force, a figure more suited as the villain for an Our Gang comedy than the more Shakespearean tragedy Loden projects around Nixon. Linguistically, the current set offers up only the malapropisms of Bush II & the arcane self-justifications of Donald Rumsfeld – both, it’s worth noting, have already been set into verse elsewhere.

Possibly, the analogy Loden is seeking is more Marxian one: the first time (Nixon) as tragedy, the second (Bush II) as farce. If so, the project overall feels incomplete. There are minor figures – Haldeman & Erlichman, for example, Martha Mitchell, the Watergate burglars themselves – all of whom might have been mined to deepen the project. Ditto the prosecutors who eventually pushed him from power, especially Senator Sam Ervin, “Maximum John” Sirica or the avuncular Archibald Cox. There is, tucked in the history of that administration, the outlines of a larger, deeper, finally darker project than the 20 poems printed here, or their companions in the earlier Hotel Imperium & The Last Campaign, suggest.

Rachel Loden has struggled with Nixon in her own way as deeply as Kent Johnson wrestles with Araki Yasusada. Ultimately, as an idea, Loden’s is the far more important – and difficult – project. Scattered as it has been across different books, however, it never quite fully comes into focus. If anything, the best point of comparison isn’t Johnson at all, but perhaps something closer to the way Robert Duncan ran Passages amid the poems of several different volumes. But – as I’ve written here also of Passages – Rachel Loden’s Tricky Dick poems would have far greater impact gathered into a single collection in which they – and they alone – are the focus. Given that there is no sign yet that she has exhausted this fixation with the dark side of American public life, that book may still be in the making.

 

¹ David Bromige & Robert Duncan, respectively.



Tuesday, September 20, 2005

 

Sometimes I come to even a small book late, as with Marc Kuykendall’s My Picayune Anxiety Room, a charming chapbook published three years ago by Barretta Books of New York in an edition of just 162 (12 signed & numbered, the remainder hors commerce). With just fifteen poems, only stretching out to a second page, you would think I might have finished this treat the instant it arrived. Yet I know the “unread books” bookcases – I have three, one large one for poetry, two smaller ones for critical writing and for fiction, biography, history & memoirs (all lumped together) – include other volumes no larger than this that reach back into the early ‘90s if not earlier.

Of course when time has passed since a book like this has been published, especially by somebody whose work I can’t really say I know¹, I’m curious as to why I haven’t heard more, or more recently, from or of them. Is Kuykendall one of those poets who will publish only one or two small books & move to something else as a defining life activity? It’s not possible to know from this reader’s distance, nor is it any characterization of quality – Ebbe Borregaard has some of the very best poems in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, but over the four-plus decades since that first came out, he’s been one of the least public of its contributors. David Melnick just has three books over the past 33 years and Eclogs, his first volume, has fewer poems than does Kuykendall’s book. Yet Melnick has more, and more ardent, followers than ever. Twice this week I’ve received inquiries concerning his current whereabouts (in retirement in San Francisco) & his recent writing (nonexistent).

Kuykendall’s book is quite good – that is both its secret & perhaps its curse. All of the poems are well-crafted, witty, intelligent, impossible not to enjoy. Yet there is little here that I have not seen the likes of elsewhere. In this sense – tho in this sense only – it reminds me of some School of Quietude volumes, well-wrought but thoroughly circumscribed by its historical moment.

Kuykendall writes what can only be called a late-generation NY School text – where images angle just slightly away from the expected & the open, discursive tone harkens back to Frank O’Hara’s adaptation of William Carlos Williams. My favorite piece here is a short one entitled “Two Poems”:

Speaking of ideal conditions,
I was halfway across the pool
getting stung on the lip by a bee
that had flown into my root beer,
when the little boy almost drowned.

I saw you later at the reading,
your gaze was like frozen pebbles.
I read the poem about how
you crushed a rose over my pants,
thought I made it seem like it
was about something else entirely.

That first stanza could be a case study in the influence of John Ashbery – starting in the middle, building through slow narrative twists to a final line that could not be anticipated from anything that has preceded it. The second stanza isn’t quite as successful – those last two lines could have been more efficient – but within the subgenre of love askew it’s a perfectly presentable text. Kuykendall’s obviously aware that the two stanzas don’t quite “fit” – hence the title – yet placing beside one another positions each to operate more sharply than either could solo.

This is a book deeply committed to Auden’s idea that poetry “makes nothing happen.” Yet the craft of each text, combined with a first-rate graphic design (Kuykendall printed the cover himself) betrays its seeming casualness. One wonders just what result Kuykendall was seeking. I, on the other hand, will be seeking out Kuykendall’s future work henceforth, hoping that this strong sense of craft pushes itself out more into a territory yet unknown.

 

¹ A search on Google doesn’t turn up much, tho a Mark Kuykendall is a graphic designer in Kansas City who claims that his favorite poet is Jack Kerouac & another has been a bass player for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. In November, 1845, one Matthew Kuykendall of Kentucky willed to his son Mark “one negro girl named Caroline.” The book's verso is somewhat more helpful - tho it does lack a copyright notice - crediting Sal Mimeo and The Hat for prior publication, plus thanking several people, Larry Fagin & Lisa Jarnot among them.



Monday, September 19, 2005

 

Who was it who first proposed the Bolivian government’s display of the corpse of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1967 as an instance of bourgeois sculpture? Ghastly as that sounds, it also rings true. The border between the work of art and the public image has always been one subject to conceptual negotiation. Indeed, in just the past three weeks, there have been more than a few aerial photographs of New Orleans that have suggested an almost Christo-like quality to them.

Let’s take this one step closer to home. There once was an artist whose work with the body, especially in outdoor sites, often resulted images that suggested half-buried corpses. Then Ana Mendieta either jumped or was pushed from her 34th-floor loft – the echoes from her own work were unmistakable. Her husband Carl Andre, a sculptor whose own signature pieces are of flattened metal laid out on gallery & museum floors, was prosecuted, but acquitted. Regardless of what scenario one concocts in one’s head to explain what might have happened, the stain of the aesthetic is impossible to completely eradicate. The event is all the more horrific because of this.

At one level, Roberto Bolaño’s novel, Distant Star, is about an artist whose work just as dramatically obliterates the boundaries between not so much art & life as art & death. At another level, Bolaño’s book isn’t about this character at all. Rather, it’s about telling & perception.

The context is a group of young poets in a couple of college creative writing courses in Chile in the early 1970s. In addition to the unnamed narrator, we have a couple of teachers who figure into the narrative only peripherally, Bibiano O’Ryan, the narrator’s best friend, Fat Marta, Veronica & Angelica Garmendia – mostly referred to collectively as the Garmendia sisters – and one Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who even in the book’s ostensible first sentence¹ is called Carlos Wieder. The little coterie’s days as idle students, contemplating their publication in little magazines & wondering as to whom might be sleeping with whom, is blow apart abruptly when Pinochet’s coup overturns the government. The narrator – like Bolaño himself – finds himself in prison, then later in exile in Europe. One of the Garmendia sisters is found with her throat cut, the other (and an aunt) are disappeared forever. Ruiz-Tagle drops from sight. This little scene will not be the birthplace of the new Chilean poetry.

Later – and this book is very much about what happens later – a freed narrator & Bibiano (he is almost never called by his surname, which I had to go back to look up) conclude that a mysterious pilot from the Chilean air force, Carlos Wieder, must be their old acquaintance Ruiz-Tagle. Wieder’s specialty is skywriting poetry, erasing lines between audiences & the concept of publication. The poems quoted sound more like an heroic mode of surreal nihilism than anything else. Then Wieder is said to have given an exhibition, not of his skywriting, but of a series of photographs. This turns out to be the hinge event of the book – and also why I raised the questions of Guevara & Mendieta above – but I won’t say more here, other than that even this Wieder now drops from view.

Virtually nothing in the book, save for the very end, occurs with even remote directness. It is always the narrator hearing from somebody else – most often Bibiano or Fat Marta, and later an ex-Chilean cop now in Paris called Abel Romero – that somebody has alleged that somebody said that something happened. Maybe.

From this point forward, the veiled narrative of Wieder’s actions become even more speculative. Characters are reduced to looking for stylistic quirks in little zines by writers with improbable names. Has Wieder become the theorist for a group of neo-Nazi skinhead poets who call themselves the New Barbarism? And, if so, which one?

Bolaño is operating on a dizzying number of levels here. On one, this is a tale of what happens to a group of, if not friends & lovers exactly, something not so far distant, after a proto-fascist coup. About preparing for a world that never actually happens. On a second, it’s about how you know something – anything – about another person, about knowledge as such, done with a savoir-faire that should ring true for anybody familiar with the literary milieu of young poets. It would all be just gossip if only it were not so terribly lethal. On the next, it’s a masterwork of story-telling, almost the perfect blend of Borges and Raymond Chandler, a combination you don’t think of every day. Finally (or am I forgetting things?), it’s an instance from a South American context of a phenomenon that will be familiar to U.S. readers – the poet’s novel, not because it’s about poetry so much as the uses it makes of this knowledge in both telling its story & plotting that story.

In this latter sense, it’s a direct kin to the work of Jack Kerouac, Kathy Acker, Joe Torra, William Burroughs, Gilbert Sorrentino, Paul Auster, Mary Burger, Kevin Killian, Douglas Woolf, Robert Glück, Camille Roy & even Herman Melville, all writers who hover about that fine demarcation betwixt genres. Again, this isn’t a context I think of when I think of South American writing. The closest antecedent I can think of is Julio Cortázar, the Argentine member of Oulipo.

And perhaps it’s the Raymond Chandler element, and definitely it’s at least partly Chris Andrews’ terrific translation, but Distant Star is completely compelling writing. In contrast, say, with a Borgesian type like Nabokov, where the result is always an overworked surface that deliberately slows the reading, Distant Star comes across like a detective novel even as it stirs up all these other dimensions. It’s a great read.

 

¹ Because it opens in fact with an introduction referring back to Bolaño’s first novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas (not yet translated into English), in which Wieder/Ruiz-Tagle appears to be called Lieutenant Ramirez Hoffman. A onetime Chilean revolutionary, Arturo B., was not satisfied with the version there. “So we took that final chapter and shut ourselves up for a month and a half in my house in Blanes, where, guided by his dreams and nightmares, we composed the present novel. My role was limited to preparing refreshments, consulting a few books, and discussing the results of numerous paragraphs with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Ménard.”



Sunday, September 18, 2005

 

Jim McCrary

 

A very nice write up on the new Black Spring in today’s Lawrence Journal-World. Tho this weblog beat them to it by a little over two months.



This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?