Saturday, December 17, 2005

 

She may live in Beirut, but Lilac is so profoundly an American that she will appreciate that on the blogroll to the left, she is number 711. Normally I don’t approve of the use of pseudonyms in the blogroll, tho I have agreed to use a few. I know Lilac’s “real” name, or maybe just her Christian one, but this is one instance where we’ll just let that go and call her by the surname of Cotton.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

I am interviewed in the new issue of Double Room.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

My nephew Daniel is writing about Wittgenstein these days.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

Jim Behrle really is selling his “Obey Ron” t-shirts, thongs, sweats, camisoles, baseball caps, cups, clocks, light switches, stamps. Perfect for the New Formalist on your list.



Friday, December 16, 2005

 

A tip of the mouse to the very first creative writing teacher I ever had, Audrey Elwood, who passed away last Saturday. Audrey Rein (pronounced Ryan), as she was then known, brought Woody Guthrie records into her eleventh grade English class as an example of poetry (very radical in 1962), sponsored the creative writing club at Albany High (where I first heard of Bob Dylan, also in 1962), and refused to be intimidated when HUAC named her boyfriend (later husband) Phil Elwood as a “person of interest” for playing pre-bebop jazz on KPFA radio. She and one other teacher at Albany High, Charles Clarke, my social studies teacher who doubled as a teamster in his off hours, were the only reasons I even bothered to go to school. When poetry finally opened up for me that year, in the form of William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music, it was Audrey Rein who had prepared me for that.

I saw Audrey & Phil from time to time at music events long after I got out of high school, the last time at the memorial concert for Kate Wolf. Once, many moons before, my first wife & I were hitch-hiking out to a theater in San Francisco that was right out by the beach, called I think the Surf, in order to see Jean-Luc Godard’s latest flick, Weekend, when Audrey & Phil – on their way to see the same film – stopped to pick us up. They hated it, Shelley & I loved it, and I began to sense just how the chasm between generations might impact even like-minded folk.

Everyone should have an Audrey Rein or two in their school career – I was lucky (in good part because the Albany school district attracted intellectuals who just didn’t want to move away from Berkeley to pursue academic careers) to have had four or five.



Thursday, December 15, 2005

 

Not to be outdissed, Jessica Belluci, PR director of the Village Voice, called my attention to their version of a notable books list for 2005. The Voice’s roster contains just 25 books, and in it we find poets doing everything but poetry: writing fiction (Sesshu Foster, Kenneth Koch, Dennis Cooper), writing letters (Robert Lowell), writing a memoir that may or may not be fiction (Harry Matthews’ My Life in CIA, tho one might counter that Matthews is really a novelist who writes poetry, an argument one might make with Cooper as well), and just one book that might be poetry, Geraldine Kim’s marvelous Povel. I have to agree that Povel deserves to be on any best books list for this year and the only reason I haven’t reviewed it here is that I’m still in the middle of reading it myself. But to call it a poem, as Forrest Gander obviously did in awarding it the 2005 Fence Modern Poets Series prize, ignores all of its other dimensions. The implication, at least as I read the Voice selections, is that poets exist, but the poem maybe not. That’s something to ponder.



Wednesday, December 14, 2005

 

Plus ça change, plus c’est le meme chose. The New York Times has been doing a December “notable” or “best” books list since 1967. This time last year, I looked at what was then accessible on the Times website & wrote:

Since 1997, The New York Times has listed 57 “notable” books of poetry in its annual Books of the Year issues. Of these, 84 percent of the books came from just eight publishers. Just under half of the “notable” books, 47 percent, were published by Knopf & FSG.

Over a quarter of the “notable books” were written by just seven poets. Two poets, Anne Carson & Glynn Maxwell, have been listed three times in the past eight years. Five others (Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes & Charles Simic) have been listed twice.

This year, the Times adds five new volumes to its list:

COLLECTED POEMS, 1943-2004, by Richard Wilbur, Harcourt

MIGRATION: New and Selected Poems, by W. S. Merwin, Copper Canyon

NATURAL HISTORY: Poems, by Dan Chiasson, Knopf

OVERLORD: Poems, by Jorie Graham, Ecco/HarperCollins

STAR DUST, by Frank Bidart, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Four books were published by members of the Gang of Eight. And two of the five books are by Knopf & FSG. It’s an index of just how concentrated the Times’ selections have been that this is enough to cause these percentages to fall.

One of the five books, Jorie Graham’s Overlord, is by one of the seven poets who has been listed on multiple occasions since 1997. However, Bill Merwin now joins this club with Migration, having previously been cited for The River Sound. Merwin also succeeds in getting a Copper Canyon volume listed for the first time.¹

Two of the five poets (Jorie Graham & Frank Bidart) are roughly my age, while Merwin & Richard Wilbur are old enough to be my parents. The sole concession to youth is the selection of Dan Chiasson, whose imitations of Jack Gilbert are slavish enough to make you think he must still be an undergraduate.

Big collecteds that were not listed this year include Ted Berrigan, David Meltzer & Kenneth Koch. It’s worth noting that both the Meltzer & Koch volumes were published by Gang of Eight houses, tho I should note that Koch’s New Addresses was listed in 2001 and his Collected Poems was reviewed on the same day as the publication of the notable book list. New Addresses remains the only volume by any member of the New American poets listed in the past nine years.

So I went back to 1983, just to see how differently the list might have operated 22 years ago. The total number of poetry titles included that year was a dozen, but since the larger list into which that was embedded contained over 200 titles, poetry’s share of the Times’ attention cannot really be said to have declined. The 1983 list was as follows:

THE ARGOT MERCHANT DISASTER. Poems New and Selected, by George Starbuck, Atlantic/Little, Brown

THE COLLECTED POEMS, 1945-75, by Robert Creeley, California

COUNTRY MUSIC. Selected Early Poems, by Charles Wright, Wesleyan

EROSION, by Jorie Graham, Princeton

FROM THE FIRST NINE. Poems 1946-1976, by James Merrill, Atheneum

GREAT TRANQUILLITY. Questions and Answers, by Yehuda Amichai. Harper & Row

THE KINGFISHER, by Amy Clampitt, Knopf

LETTERS FROM A FATHER AND OTHER POEMS, by Mona Van Duyn, Atheneum

ON TOUR WITH RITA, by Nicholas Christopher, Knopf

THE RANDOM HOUSE BOOK OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRENCH POETRY. Edited by Paul Auster, Random House

SELECTED & NEW POEMS. 1961-1981, by Jim Harrison, Delacorte/ Seymour Lawrence

TAR, by C. K. Williams, Random House

Some things really don’t change, including, it would seem, the presence of Jorie Graham. A number of the trade presses have been absorbed into others – Atheneum into Simon & Schuster, Random House into Knopf – but what really disappears to poetry when you halve the larger list down from 200 to 100 books is that university presses & poets of color disappear. Is that what the Times means by “fit to print”? Actually, with three university press volumes included out of twelve back in 1983, the selection 22 years ago was less concentrated on the big trades than this year’s list.

 

¹ Copper Canyon is just the fourth small press publisher of poetry to be listed during this period, joining Seven Stories (Alan Dugan’s Poems Seven), Turtle Point (Richard Howard’s Trappings), and Graywolf (Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise).



Tuesday, December 13, 2005

 

When Krishna first put 3-Iron into the Netflix cue, I could not understand why she wanted to see a movie about golf – I was thinking that it must be the Kevin Costner clunker that I’ve flipped past on cable a few times. But it turns out instead to be the newest film available in the U.S. by Ki-duk Kim, whose film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring I looked at here on November 30. Golf is a theme, tho not in any way I could have imagined.

A young man delivers flyers to homes in Korea – I have no way of knowing if this is Seoul or not, and it doesn’t really matter – riding around on his motorbike, taping the flyers to front doors. Later he comes back, finds one that has not had the flyer removed and, using a very professional looking little burglary kit, breaks in. He stays the night, checking out the lives of the people whose home he’s appropriated, then moves on the following day or so – the exception being if their answering machine message suggests that they will be gone longer. He’s closer to Goldilocks than to a traditional burglar in his approach – he invariably fixes broken objects, from toys to clocks to scales. He takes his photo with a digital camera as a keepsake and washes and dries any dirty laundry he finds. This is homelessness with high style.

All of which works until he enters a home whose flyer hasn’t been removed not because the occupant is away, but rather because she has been so battered by her husband that she has spent the last day cowering in her bedroom. He doesn’t see her at first, so she watches him as he fixes her scale, does her laundry then goes out into the yard – this couple has serious money – and begins practicing his driving skills with the husband’s 3-iron and a tacky driving cage set up in their garden. She watches as he cooks and bathes and doesn’t confront him until he’s in her bed.

When the husband returns home the next day, he finds the young man still driving golf balls into the cage & goes predictably ballistic. The young man renders him harmless (by means of golf) and he and the wife escape on his motorbike, taking only the 3-iron and a golf ball or two, returning to his life of homelessness. In the afternoons, after putting up their flyers and before returning to find their home for the night, they hang around parks where he takes a golf ball that he has tethered with wire around the base of a tree & practices driving. At one moment in the film this has horrific consequences, tho not for either of the protagonists who at this point are both still curiously immune from the implications of their actions.

I should note that at this point in the film – well over a half hour of it – neither character has spoken. In fact, the woman goes some 85 minutes into this 88-minute film before she says a word. The young man never says any. There is dialog, but it occurs around them, from the husband, from returning homeowners, from cops and the like.

Their adventures as a couple follow a predictable enough narrative – basically, every way they can have problems with the premise that nobody’s home turn up – and the film follows a sequence as stately in its own movement as Spring was in its five stages, tho in this case the segments might be called before jail, in jail, after jail. The photography – especially in the jail sequence – is often spectacular, and once you settle into the realization that these characters are just never going to speak (or almost never), it’s a lovely little film, sort of When Harry Met Sally as told by some combination of Samuel Beckett & Quentin Tarantino.

“The reason that in my movies there are people who do not talk is because something deeply wounded them,” Kim has said. It is also a strategy that enables a director to more fully control the experience of overseas audiences – and Kim’s films play to larger crowds in Europe, apparently, than they do in Korea. Language’s absence changes the chemistry of cinema itself – dialog, when only spoken by secondary figures, comes closer to the role reserved in Greek drama for the chorus. Eyes & the corners of mouths becomes suddenly much more important – both players here are seriously poker-faced throughout, with only hints of smiles or alarm. There is one moment, early on, in which she screams, just a shriek, into a telephone, but that’s it right up until the final scene. Indeed, the one scene that patently falls flat is one in which he cries. Not that it’s not appropriate, narratively, but that it falls outside the palette the film has established.

So often I’ve seen American movies in which tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on everything except – it would seem – paying for a writer. 3-Iron is exquisitely plotted & choreographed – even its use of the edges of silence is well-written, as with a scene in an interrogation room at a police station in which the taciturn nature of the hero leads to a beating. The film’s use of cuts is such that – early on in particular – it’s not clear whether or not the characters are speaking, just not in the scenes on camera, any more than it is whether or not their relationship is carnal or platonic – I’ve read reviews that come to diametrically opposite conclusions. Beyond a certain point, tho (it comes when the heroine returns to one of the homes they’ve burgled & simply walks past the startled inhabitants to take a nap), the absence of language is so thoroughly written that this seemingly realist caper takes on all the trappings of a fable. 3-Iron is a film that is going to take a long time to fade from my imagination.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

 

When I first glanced at C.D. Wright’s “Rising, Falling, Hovering” in the new Chicago Review, my first thought was that this might be a text around which to build a discussion here of the uses of variable line spacing in contemporary poetry, since Wright changes her mode from passage to passage, sometimes from stanza to stanza. Reading it later, I was overcome with a different sense – that this 30-page poem could easily be the basis for a major motion picture. That is not a thought that has come to me often before, save maybe long ago in reading Ed Dorn’s ‘Slinger, which I’ve always imagined as an animated text, sort of Heidegger meets Scooby-Do. “Rising, Falling, Hovering,” however, would have to be some combination of El Norte, Syriana, The Sheltering Sky & just maybe The Ice Storm, and would require the skills of a Wim Wenders or Tarkovsky or Ang Lee at the top of their game. It’s a sad, thoughtful, even wrenching poem. I would call it Wright’s masterpiece, tho I’ve thought that of other, earlier pieces, and she keeps making these great leaps forward. I would call it a beautiful poem, but I think Wright distrusts beauty & it shows – rather, it is a profoundly crafted, searingly imagined piece of work.

Reading “Rising, Falling, Hovering” reminded me that Wright has used Evan S. Connell, Jr.’s Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, which can only be described as a verse novel, when teaching the American long poem. The verse novel is a form that has been favored of late by some new formalist types, such as Vikram Seth & Glynn Maxwell, but where Golden Gate & Time’s Fool simply pour plots like so much syrup into regular patterns – the basest conceivable concept of form – Connell, a novelist by trade (Mr. Bridge, The Connoisseur, Mrs. Bridge, The Diary of a Rapist, Points for a Compass Rose) who came to the project, as it were, from the other direction, understands Pound’s dictum that poetry should be at least as well written as prose:

Listen! There are sapphires,
garnets, amethysts, and many another jewel in
Ceylon
where the king Sendernam wears a ruby
larger than a plum;
and we have seen it, my brothers and I,
and have shielded our eyes from its opulence.

What should I say next? I am held in thrall
by a thousand things.

As I walk past a woman’s window
I hear someone whisper,
Lhurda, the dawn is breaking! It will soon be day.
My love, the dawn is here.

I have concealed myself.
I listen
while she remembers
mysteries of birth and creation.
I see her
entering the water,
who is
more wholly precious to me than wading animals,
or the swift iridescence of shark fins flecked with spume.

Like Notes from a Bottle, “Rising, Falling, Hovering” occupies that middle kingdom of the genres – neither fully poem, nor fiction, nor memoir, nor philosophy & yet at once all four. “Rising” is more scenic than Connell’s work, with passages functioning almost as if they were chapters:

Calla lilies limp in their buckets
The obligatory pariah dog
Concentrates its starved mass on a step
Blowflies battling the head
The casket seller checks
For occupancy before locking up
Monastery deep in shadow
Worker urinating into a box
Under the Bridge of Martyrs
Disposition of small limbs
A face dark and deadish
The petal of one eye shutting
In Hidalgo’s courtyard
The pomegranate tree spreads
Into its memory of a future
For the next ones to forget
Ink of the padre’s letters
Gone to vinegar
For the next ones to drink
Desk clerk mesmerized
By the new media-borne war

Yet, in contrast with fiction, there are large swathes of text whose purpose could not possibly be called narrative in the usual sense, unless an aspect of light in a shadowy hotel lobby be imagined as an action:

Across the river       is a whole other world:

      hotel (once grand) with a ballroom called Starlight

A lobby that smells like assisted-living dinner

     smoke-discolored chandelier

Aloe vera and bromeliad felted with dust

And toenails of the truly old painted
     for twirling across polished floors

And one of the old ones in a camphoric gown
     says she wore this when she was smaller

Spotlights on the fountain tinted for travelers
     in the time of terror        color of the koi

There are little things here – the choice of the word discolored, the choice of the word felted – that bespeak a commitment to accuracy that supercedes all other possible pleasures of the poem. Even what at first appear to be excessive touches such as the rhetorical structure of that second line, or the suddenly too-pretty prosody of the time of terror, come precisely into focus, necessary to a more thorough realism that governs the work: color of the koi indeed, the pun in the last word exactly at odds with the scene’s present circumstance.

There are multiple story-lines here, none of which of reach closure. Nor is it always clear whose scar belongs to whom, only that scarring is very much the point. One sees both operating in the poem’s last punctuation, a period at the end of to be cont. A phrase that is itself repeated over the course of this text.

I read “Rising, Falling, Hovering” in a single sitting – an almost unheard of practice for me with a poem this long – then did so again six days later. It made me realize that the only other poet now writing whom I do this for, feel both driven & motivated to do so at such length, is Rachel Blau DuPlessis. In both cases, I think it’s because Wright & DuPlessis are writing the most complex poetry anywhere in this language, and both do so in total mastery of their tools, and in total surrender to the demands of the poem. Reading this poem is a major life event.



Sunday, December 11, 2005

 

I wrote a considerable amount of Ketjak not too far from this exact location in San Francisco’s Dolores Park. So when I saw this image on Steve Vincent’s weblog, I was overcome with emotion – nostalgia, loss, fondness. Actually, the spot I really liked was just up the slope from that lollipop tree on the right. Once, as I was writing, George Carlin came and sat down about five yards away. It was very hard to concentrate.



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