Saturday, October 08, 2005
Friday, October 07, 2005
I have several books by Jay Millar, or as he capitalizes it, Jay MillAr (perhaps so that non-Red Sox fans will understand how to pronounce his surname), but until False Maps For Other Creatures, had never actually read one cover to cover. False Maps is the first title of the resurrected blewointmentpress, bill bisset’s legendary press, that was sold after a 20-year run in 1983 to David Lee & Maureen Cochrane, who renamed it Nightwood Editions. Now after a further run of another 20-plus years, Nightwood has decided to bring blewointmentpress back as an imprint, the idea being as I understand it to use the brand to showcase books “in the spirit of” bisset’s experimentalist/New American tradition. Tho MillAr was too young to have appeared in the press’ original run of books, he makes sense as an inaugural author for the new series. He’s an energetic virtuoso in exactly this same vein. My one question or hesitation is that I’m not at all certain that it means the same thing in 2005.
False Maps is MillAr’s fifth collection, at the very least. The first that I’m aware of it The Ghosts of Jay MillAr, published by Coach House in 1998, when MillAr was just 27. It’s a thick book, or more accurately it’s an anthology of five sizeable chapbooks, each penned by a different persona a la Pessoa. This is followed four years later by a booklength suite entitled Mycological Studies, also from Coach House. MillAr’s own press, BookThug, released the small blue in 2003, printed in a format I’ve never quite seen elsewhere for poetry, with a zigzag cover (the cover stock is at least 20 inches wide) folded so as to create two “back-to-back” spines going in opposite directions, one of which houses all the odd numbered poems in the sequence, the other all the even numbered. There are 79 poems in all, an interesting prime number for such a project. There are just 52 copies of this project. BookThug has also released another volume, esp: accumulation sonnets, but I’ve not seen that. The Coach House website also refers to “many privately published editions.”
If this seems like a lot of production for a poet who is only now 34, it should be noted that everything I’ve seen of MillAr’s, most definitely including False Maps, reveals him to be a meticulous, sometimes awesome craftsman. None of this has the air of juvenilia. Thus this last section from a poem entitled “Author Photos” reads:
of moths or
the leg of a
the ear of a
edge of a tree
are before they
we look through
to think we
This is really faultless craft. Contrast, for example, the careful deployment of syllables per line – there are never more than four – with the writing, say, of a master of that element in the poem, Ted Enslin. Note how the final four lines all contain three syllables each & how the enjambed next-to-last line all operate to set up a sonic tone of closure.
This, as I said, is faultless craft. That, however, is its fault. For all of MillAr’s technical brilliance & his almost up-to-date referencing of models such as Christopher Dewdney or Steve McCaffery, one has the sense that he has the ability to write a late version of the northern variant of the New American poem rather endlessly, always effortlessly, sometimes with breath-taking beauty. It gave me pause to see it here, and made me stop to think of the role of generations in tradition. For example, immediately after the New Americans made their mark, writing verse that was often deeply flawed but that changed the English-language poetry scene permanently in the 1950s, the very next generation of poets found themselves really struggling with all sorts of questions of identity. Even among the New Americans themselves, one could read the rejection of the New American model that showed up in Edward Dorn with the arrival of Gunslinger or with Amiri Baraka’s shedding the cocoon of LeRoi Jones as a struggle to identify themselves on their own terms, not merely through what they saw in the Maximus Poems. Poets even younger than they, and at a somewhat more distant remove, had an even harder time. For example, one can read the collected poems of Lee Harwood as an ongoing response over the course of several decades (tho it’s not the only, nor even the most fruitful way to read his work). A poem such as Harwood’s “The Journey,” if you look at it this way, is as much a reaction to Dorn’s ‘Slinger as it is an imitation, a mechanism for letting this very different side of the broader tradition impact Harwood’s own writing, which up to that moment (circa 1967) seemed mostly conditioned by a reading of first generation New York School poets.
When the Projectivists in particular showed up in Vancouver in the early ‘60s (even before a certain fragment of the SF Renaissance actually moved there), it had a large impact on Canadian writing, and a substantial portion of what was then written by Canadian poets later in that decade and well into the 1980s had the look of a second gen New American aesthetic, not at all disjunct from the source, but generally more well written, the sharp, awkward edges mostly polished smooth. In a sense, such writing – I’m deliberately not naming names here – provided a broad foundation against which the likes of such wilder poets as bisset, b.p. Nichol, Steve McCaffery, Nicole Brossard & Christopher Dewdney stood out. It’s an interesting question as to whether these more groundbreaking poets could have existed at all without, so to speak, that ground.
MillAr, or at least the MillAr of False Maps, carries this polishing process to a new level, one unimaginable even 15 years ago. The poems are all very good, but the sharp edges & imperfections that were the signature of the New Americans themselves have all disappeared. As brilliant as it is, there is inevitably an ersatz quality to it, like the imitation Dylan concert tickets from the 1960s tucked into glassine envelopes in the big new scrapbook that accompanies, if that is the right word, the merchandise onslaught associated with Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home. It’s not unlike the Marsalis family version of jazz – it ain’t classical, but it ain’t bebop either.
I like False Maps a lot. I can read this work almost endlessly, and with some pleasure. Yet in the end what I like most about it is its familiarity, the comfort I feel with a project I know so well even before I’ve begun to read a single word. And that is not a sensation I would ever associate with the New American Poetry.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
CSI: Poetry would find my fingerprints on Linh Dinh’s great new book, American Tatts. There is my blurb on the back, a dead give away. I may even have been the soul who put first Chax Press onto the idea of looking at Linh’s work. I’d readily plead guilty. Absolutely none of which explains, even partly, my excitement at reading this book.
Dinh is hardly the first foreign-born American poet to bring the experience & tone of the immigrant experience to his work, nor is he the first even to do so with a decided sensitivity toward class & all of its trappings & consequences. And he is hardly the first to write with an ear toward the post-avant. He may, however, be the first to do all of the above simultaneously, and to do so in ways that are new with regard to each of these realms at once. Consider this poem, whose two-word title is not a typo:
He has a muscular torso
With a thousand erections
Lighting up the night sky
But none sticks up more
Than the twin cocks.
Who would think of going all the way
Downtown to castrate
With two knives ablaze?
A muscular story ends.
He now speaks differently
And cannot look into the void
To say that this is a poem about the
“You’re a rich little white girl.
People don’t give a damn
About you. They only care about
The poor people, the minorities,
Those less fortunate. Go boo hoo hoo
To Daddy and buy some diamonds.
I’m sure you’ll wake up tomorrow
And feel like the million bucks
That’s stuck up your ass.”
He does not, however, use the same device for “It Was True”:
She yanked his pants down
To see if it was true, and my God,
it was true: he was wearing his mom’s
Old ladies’ panties, the pink color fading
A little after so many years but still vibrant,
A loose thread here and there dangling, but
Otherwise the effect was not unbecoming.
In the comments stream to my note the other day on Ubuweb, Kirby Olson & Ian Keenan both mentioned the films & photography of Larry Clark & there is a side of Dinh that is not unlike the
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
It took me a long time to get around to reading the first of Joseph Torra’s novels, Gas Station, precisely, I think, because of the title & the premise behind it. The idea of coming of age working the pumps as a topic for a novel is a hard sell for someone who didn’t bother to learn to drive until he was over 40. On the other hand, the back cover pitch for My Ground, Torra’s third novel, refers to that book as “the final volume of the My Ground series,” making me think that I should approach his fiction volumes – I’ve been a happy reader of the poetry for some time – in chronological order.
Three sentences into Gas Station & I was sold completely:
I’m burning trash piece by piece tossing take-out coffee cups, crumpled sandwich paper, paper bags, pizza boxes, donut boxes, this morning’s Record American into the rusty fifty-gallon drum holes punched through sides for ventilation. Cigarette butts I glean and smoke stirring the black-smoke paper fire. It smells back here where Countess is chained up all day her shits sit various stages of decay.
What sold me on it was three things. First the level of detail – specifically the inclusion in the first sentence of “crumpled sandwich paper,” the first time I can recall ever seeing that omnipresent contemporary object discussed in literature. Right off the bat, you know that Torra has a real eye, not simply a literary one. The second thing that sold me on it was his sense of the relation of narrative – literally here the unfolding of meaning across time – to syntax. The inversion of the second sentence is exactly right, even if (as I think it does) it echoes the first sentence of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.¹ Okay, so referencing Faulkner is a good way to seduce me as a reader as well – tho finally it’s not what this book is about. Third, the run-on syntax of the third sentence places the narrative on the side of language as speech, rather than the “proper” erudition of expository prose. The text is signaling an allegiance to an entire prose tradition that includes everyone from Kerouac to Creeley & reaches back to the best of Melville. Not bad, in sum, for three sentences about burning trash.
Yesterday, I characterized Renee Gladman’s The Activist as “a powerful narrative engine roaring down the track with no particular place to go,” contrasting with works “where you may or may not be going anywhere, but it hardly matters since what you’re paying heed to are the details along the way.” Torra represents this latter tradition in almost its purest form. About two or three sections into the book, the prose relaxes just slightly, enough so that the Faulknerian echoes fade, but allowing Torra to elaborate an endlessly pleasurable text that operates almost entirely at the point of detail. Indeed, even past the 100-page mark in this 134 page I felt that it was possible that Torra was going to resist giving us the predictable sign-posts of plot closure (there are several possibilities, involving the narrator’s father’s relation to his mother, the gas station’s future, the narrator’s virginity, some of the other characters that inhabit this small, even claustrophobic universe). Torra pushes us almost to the end before he gives us a few & not necessarily the ones the we anticipate either. A part of me wishes he hadn’t, but another part recognizes this as an element in the novelist’s contract with reader expectations – Torra’s not interested in the quick, slick gee whiz books that the likes of James Patterson or Stuart Woods mass produce, but he’s not Kathy Acker, either. That is to say, he doesn’t think of the reader of the novel as a chump. He doesn’t take the risks that a Renee Gladman does with the form itself, but in part that seems to be because Torra is much more interested in the pleasure the text itself can provide. Of Gladman, I wrote that she had written “eighty percent of a great book.” Torra doesn’t aim quite as high, but he brings home something closer to 95 percent of what he aims for. For a lot of readers of both – I think everyone who reads this blog should be reading both – it may just come down to a matter of taste. Both have a lot to contribute.
One thing I would note, tho, especially for the reader who comes down on the side of Gladman, Gas Station offers an extraordinary document, almost an anthropological study of social range possible within a certain kind of institution. The narrator’s father, after all, is the pettiest of the petite bourgeois, one for whom the alternative might not be the working class, but a more lumpen mode of existence. For the most part, it’s a male world, but from a perspective that is seldom articulated except in terms stained with heroic struggle. Torra avoids all that: it’s sexist & racist, but it’s also daily & friendly, a refuge from realms (including, for the narrator, school & home) that are obviously not nearly as safe a haven. The difference between these two books is not that one is political and the other not, nor that one is left and the other is not, but that one is committed to the particular. And that’s a difference worth contemplating.
¹ Which reads “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
Monday, October 03, 2005
I first thought of Renee Gladman’s The Activist as a booklength poem. That was before I read it. Later, I felt as though I were in the middle of a novel. But then the work also had the feel of a conceptual art project to it. In retrospect, I think The Activist is a little of all three – in some ways, one of the very few such projects that manages to resist settling comfortably into a single genre (usually, it is the novel that takes over). It has a relationship of sorts to that wonderful literary niche, the poet’s novel, but it’s not that either. Nor is it new narrative in the sense that one might take from Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Michael Amnasan or Camille Roy. Ultimately, The Activist is The Activist. You have to take it on its own terms. On that, it pretty much insists.
A bridge has been blown up. A group of terrorists is being blamed. Except that some people claim that you can tell that the bridge itself is still standing. Others, however, insist that it never existed. Gladman presents the event from a variety of perspectives, much of it from the vantage point of a journalist, that professional observer & chronicler of facticity. We read media reports, all written with the hyperventilated tone of cable news, alarmist, authoritative, completely sans clue as to what’s happening. Eventually we find ourselves inside the radical group itself, at meetings where actions are discussed, decisions made. We find ourselves inside the head of the speaker at the podium & find that nothing is more real here than anywhere else. Characters behave as if the simplest acts must be conducted through a fog of inertia, and as if knowledge is the hardest thing imaginable.
In a way, if this book has ancestors, it may Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren or Thomas Pynchon’s
When The Activist finally comes inside & enters into the world of the movement itself, I experienced an enormous anxiety as a reader. I’m old enough to remember the revolutionary romanticism of the 1960s – Diane DiPrima’s Revolutionary Letters, say, or the work of Alta – works that helped set up the environment in which the suicidal & terribly destructive behavior of the Weather Underground & the Symbionese Liberation Army helped to shred what remained of the antiwar movement and set the foundation for the wave of reaction that first brought Ronald Reagan to power. The last thing I wanted to read was another text with Baader-Meinhof envy. But Gladman surprised me in this regard completely. Monique Wally and her followers are as completely paralyzed by the problems of knowledge & action as the state outside is an hysterical ensemble of dysfunctional elements. Imagine, if you will, Steinbeck’s one true communist novel, In Dubious Battle, filtered through a screen of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The Activist is both that exciting and that frustrating. You can’t, it seems, have one without the other.
Gladman has written, I would say, eighty percent of a great book. My hesitation is my own alienation from the discursive mode of reporting, and with the tone of expectation that it sets up. Even more than Dhalgren or
Officials pursue activists over rocky terrain in
search of answers. "We want to make sure anger
does not ruin these kids," Daniel Sharpe of the
Brendan Seize Unit (BSU) confides, "but it's like
pushing against water."
Investigators combed shards from the collapsed
bridge for signs that it had been blown apart. "I
have a feeling that Monique Wally and her group
are behind this. What we have is a smell of iron
burning, but no visual evidence on site." Sharpe
and his BSU team have joined with local police
and the FBI to solve the encrypted crime.
"Only the time of day distinguishes these so-
called dissidents from terrorists. Had they blown
that bridge an hour earlier or an hour later, we
would have had a lot of death on our hands."
The bridge remains in tact today, despite reports
that it is long gone. A team of specialists from
ter by mid-week. "These scientists are the elite
among their field. We have every faith that they
will acknowledge the violence done to the
bridge," the President assured viewers today.
This is where The Activist felt most like conceptual art to me – in its cool, even cold, distant tone. Yet the instrumentalism of the language – so efficiently executed here – doesn’t yield the truth, nor even a web of lies. Rather, it’s as if all language were a membrane through which we had to reach in order to do anything in the real world. It’s a membrane that starts out just perceptible, as in this passage above, and which becomes impenetrable by the book’s end. Imagine, if you will, searching for a book by Dr. Spock or Brazleton on raising babies & coming home with Eraserhead instead.
The Activist is a deeply pessimistic work, always brilliant, but not particularly interested in pleasure. It’s unusual in that regard and it makes me realize just how much contemporary poetry wants us to like it – you almost have to go back to Pound to find work that could care less what you think & feel (especially the latter) as you read. Yet, also like Pound, it’s a book that will make you think, stop & if not wonder, at least worry, on every page.
Sunday, October 02, 2005
Speaking of archival film footage, Ubuweb is back. And to it, a superb library of downloadable classics of avant-garde & experimental cinema has been added. Samuel Beckett, Joseph Beuys, James Broughton, Luis Buñuel – and those are just the contributors whose surnames begin with B – the list is huge & extraordinary. Dziga Vertov? Robert Smithson? Carolee Schneeman? Man Ray? John Cage? They’re all here.
It’s not perfect of course – Brakhage is notably absent there in the Bs, there’s no Abigail Child, no Warren Sonbert, no Nathaniel Dorsky, no Warhol – but it’s an impressive, ambitious start. I watched Henry Hills’ Money (right click & do a “save as” if you want to follow that link) for the first time in nearly 20 years the other night, amazed anew at how vividly he generates a ballet both of movement & sound from disparate fragments shot of dozens of New York & West Coasts poets & others. Nobody in that film from the early 1980s looks sillier in hindsight than do I. You might not even recognize me: I’m in the Russian sheepskin hat & red down vest, reading from my poetry in front of the New York Stock Exchange & down along the shoreline of Battery Park.