Friday, February 17, 2006

 

I only met Barbara Guest a few times, when her move back to the town of her college days, Berkeley, overlapped with the final years of my own life in the Bay Area. But with new twins & a job that was gradually evolving into a career, those were the years when I had the least opportunity to get to know a new poet in town. I saw Guest at a few readings, talked with her at a few parties, the last time at the home of Leslie Scalapino & Tom White in Oakland.

Guest was one of just four women included in the Allen anthology – only Denise Levertov went on to match her reputation & her many readers, while the other two, Helen Adam & especially Madeline Gleason, remain neglectorinos big time. One could argue that they all did. One of the defining poets of the New York School, Guest was bizarrely not included in the Ron Padgett-David Shapiro An Anthology of New York Poets, which contained just one woman, Bernadette Mayer, among its 27 poets. Had she refused the editors? Had this quiet woman whose eyes were etched with laugh lines pissed off somebody? The editors discussed omissions, as editors will, but mentioned only Reznikoff & Ginsberg by name.

Still Guest published over 30 books, according to the bibliography linked to her page at the Electronic Poetry Center. Where Levertov became more & more conservative as a poet as she became more & more active in progressive movements, Guest remained a committed & active member of the post-avant community right up to her major stroke of a couple of years ago. She was still publishing with small presses – tho she had books from Wesleyan, Viking & Doubleday in her career as well – always trying new things. One of her later books, Rocks on a Platter, is an essay on poetics in the form of a poem, some of it utterly whimsical, all of it completely serious.

Guest is often considered an example of lyric, which she herself disputed. Her poetry is painterly not only because so much of it was “about” painting or involved in collaboration with painters, from Richard Tuttle to Laurie Reid, but because she used the page very much as a canvas for prosodic & cognitive effects. It’s never about voice – in this regard, she’s the direct ancestor of Clark Coolidge. Her position – both within & apart the first generation of New York Schoolers – is not dissimilar from that of Jack Spicer’s toward the SF Renaissance, especially after Duncan & Blaser bought into Olson’s program. Both groups acquired much greater depth through the presence of such dissenters.

Her biography of H.D. is fascinating to read not only for what it says about Hilda Doolittle, but about Guest, who is largely absent from that text’s narrative. This isn’t an academic exercise – it’s obviously (indeed, still obviously) far more important than that, to treat this modernist forerunner at this level of depth while some of the living players were still around to talk. Guest doesn’t like Doolittle by the end – one can hardly blame her, H.D. pushed everyone away eventually, using people while complaining about it all the while. Tho H.D.’s narcissism was part of a larger lifelong psychiatric disorder, not really her fault, one senses in Guest’s prose an ethics of relationships that is never precisely judgmental, but never wholly absent.

The best of writing I’ve ever come across about Guest is “The Gendered Marvelous” by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. It’s interesting in part because DuPlessis is not one of the women who I think of as having looked to Guest actively as an example for her own art. In that sense, she stands distanced from her topic not unlike how Guest did Doolittle. Yet I think it is impossible for anyone not to notice how we have gone from the days in which women represented just nine percent of the contributors in the Allen anthology, less than four percent in the Padgett-Shapiro one, to an age in which women represent at the very least half of the poetry being written in these United States. Even more than Stein or H.D., that transformation could not have occurred without Barbara Guest.



Thursday, February 16, 2006

 

 

Barbara Guest

1920-2006

 



 

My favorite poet named Wystan has a new book out. Actually, my favorite poet named Wystan, Wystan Curnow, known also as editor & critic, known inevitably further as the son of Allen Curnow, the late great late-modernist poet of New Zealand. But Wystan always has been a fine poet all on his own, at least so long as I’ve known him (and those years have begun piling up).

It’s a simple enough book in a short run, just 500 copies, not very much for somebody whose writing is known & appreciated on three continents. And just 46 pages, although it feels like more because each page consists of a sheet of paper folded over, a so-called French fold – at first I thought the pages were still uncut until I realized there was nothing printed on the interiors. The poems inside are quite different from one another, albeit all in a post-New American aesthetic mode that may remind some new readers of William Carlos Williams, Jimmy Schuyler or Michael Palmer, an intriguing trio I never would have thought to triangulate I had not read these poems. Indeed, different poems are printed in type sizes as small as eight points & as large as ten. Functionally, the book is a series, as virtually every poem addresses (or contains) the problem of color & many the subject of painting:

(

Blue nude

I saw you

reclining

alone

)

At one level, that seems like slight pun on the old Rodgers & Hart song, but in the context of this book, it invariably calls up Picasso (just as those brackets invoke Brancusi) & the song itself, which has been recorded by everyone from Sinatra to Bob Dylan, likewise invokes one side of modernism, a concept one is never very far from here. The key to the book, in fact, is two color reproductions of Piet Mondrian’s Composition (1920), one on page four facing the first text, the other on page 30 facing the last. The painting is in Mondrian’s geometrical style of the period, and is a piece that Mondrian never sold, but kept on display in his own studio at 26 Rue du Départ in Paris, his base of operations from 1914 through 1936. During this period Mondrian continually repainted the studio itself so that it was, all on its own, “a Mondrian.” Unfortunately, the only photographer who ever documented the apartment was a local Parisian named Delbo, who took some black & white photographs in 1926.

Obviously the colours are crucial to an appreciation of the impact the studio made on its visitors. Could they be deduced by matching the grey tones of the painting in Delbo’s photographs of the studio’s interior? There were six different tones of grey in the painting: red, yellow, blue and two shades of gray and black.

What seemed straight forward in theory proved much more difficult in practice, however. In the first place it turned out that the grey tones in his photographs differed from those [Frans] Postma [who took on the job of restoring Mondrian’s studio] found in the black and white photographs he himself took of the painting. Was the difference in the painting or the film? Apparently, Delbo had used a film stock that was less sensitive to yellow than to blue and that had long ago been taken off the market. And then the grey tones in Delbo’s photographs were determined in part by the light conditions in the studio. Until variations attributable to those variations were eliminated they greys could not be successfully matched. The colours of the painting and of the oil paints Mondrian used had to be submitted to spectrographic analysis, computer models made of the lighting conditions, before a plausible replication of the studio’s appearance could be reproduced.

The color in the two photographs of Composition, the first as it would look using Delbo’s unsensitized film & reconstructing hues from that, the second “as it would have looked if the grey values had been rendered regularly in the film used by Delbo” are almost entirely different. Reds are grays and grays become reds. Or yellow.

Modern Colours is divided into two parts, of which the piece containing the section above, comes in the earlier part of the first. Not, however, the opening, nor positioned so as to be the book “about” Postma’s problem. The second part, starting on page 31, after the second of the two reproductions, is “Mondrian’s Restaurant,” written in three parts:

I.

Chairs, yellow and blue. Who
is ‘himself’? What is abnormal?
The outer side we understand
first. The orange is no good
before it is ripe, nor beef before
it is ready. What’s the link
‘’tween pig and tong’? White-
decked tables—carafes—blue
siphons—people under the
terrace awning and indoors. Pang.
A young woman with a pointed
hat. ‘Une orange.’ When are
we ripe ‘n’ ready? ‘Un café
vieux marc.’ A glass wall
open: the little restaurant itself
open to the sun. A glass of
wine knocked over. Spillage.
Abnormal only ‘here’. Orange
outside and orange inside.
Beef is beef and orange is
orange. This workman
does not allow himself luxury.
Liqueur neutralises wine.
The whole framed by evergreens
in boxes also green. My blue
siphon. Who experiences
everything and remains unchanged?
The crowd decides. The orange
from outside is other than
the orange from inside.
A gourmet is a gourmet even
in the church of Montrouge.
The young woman with a hat
puts water in her wine. Inside
and outside: the owners and
the people asking for an eight-hour
day or night (says my L’Intran).
In winter the restaurant changes
again. Of course the taller
person sees more. ‘Un petit
suise’. Yet a businessman is
often a man of very little
business and an artist is
often very little an artist.
This man does not put water
in his wine, and takes no liqueur.
Icy fingers down the line.
Workman and intellectual.

The lace curtain in front
of the glass wall pretties up
what’s outside: TNAR—UATS—ER,
gigantic letters on three
large glass panels
above the white. Breakage.
A car on the left, a peram-
bulator to the right. Just as
white inside and out.
A man is sometimes a
woman and a woman some-
times no woman. Pang.
The pharmacy still has char-
bon naphtolé granulé
and vin de Pepsine Byla.
It may be jelly. A family.
The words tell their meaning
On the outside: RESTAURANT.
Both reach their destination.
‘Voilà, Monsieur.’ ‘Un boeuf gros set.’
Everything has a remedy
and each remedy its disease.
‘Sunday best.’ The ornament
on the white below has no
special meaning. The ever-
greens in boxes: neither
to the left nor to the right
on Palm Sunday. Orange
on the white plate on the
white napkin. ‘Une pomme
dessert.’ The coarse and the fine.
Buttermilk helps one’s stomach.
I think of ‘Sunday’ in the
provinces. It is what it is
from both inside and out. Straight
up. Purity through one
colour and purity through
fullness of colours. Spill-
age. Both are necessary.
Where there is nothing, even
the King has no rights:
there is no buttermilk in Paris.
A Parisienne. ‘Une pomme purée.’
The green shrubs are not
palms. Purity by reflection
and purity by absorption. Can
they take each other’s place?
Supplanting. ‘Une banane.’
A beggar. Today sprigs of
boxwood (buis) serve as palms.


II.

Who absorbs purely
and reflects purely?
Each costs money,
each has value.

The flower seller
doesn’t water her wine
but her flowers in the sun.
‘Une chopine de rouge.’

He is dans la purée.
The buis is blessed
by the Church. The orange
a feast in the sun.

‘Elle n’est pas trés
bonne,’ the apple is
of little value, yet it
costs money. Her

flowers come from
outside Paris and so
does she. ‘Une religieuse.’
‘Un mendiant.’ The shrubs,

to what do they owe
their blessing? Yet some-
times one fears pure
colour. ‘Deux cafés, deux!’

So does the little woman
with the coeurs à la crème.
‘Quatre sous de pain.’
Better to eat a ‘mendiant’

than to be one. Re-re-re-re—t-toe-oeh!
White envelope on white
napkin. I see pink
paper again. She has

lunch and does business
with the restaurant. Worse
bread, higher priced, after
the war. Union Centrale—

an archway—des Grandes
Marques. There is the
blessing (heartfelt) of the
green of the shrubs.
10 cts. Horoscope . . .

a legacy, yet the horoscope
is for a woman, not for me.
A coeur à la crème: a heart
of buttermilk in milk.

Behind the evergreens
on the footpath, people
to the right and people
to the left. A great factory

gate across the way is
closed on Sunday.
These chairs, these tables,
these dishes, these people

—who blesses them? A deaf
mute through the green shrub.
An automobile. White
in white and yet not the same.

Most to the night. On
Sunday who is ‘open’?
Three men with palms.
Pink paper: Horoscope.

A Sunday hat blows off.
Buttermilk in Paris!
‘Voici, monsieur’
‘Merci, mademoiselle.’

A woman trolley
conductor. The flower
seller also has palms.

Re-re-re-re-h-h
Montrouge—St. August-
in in red on yellow.
I feel the wind along

the glass screen (slip
stream) behind me. We
find the same everywhere
in different form. On

the right the Metro and
also the Barrière. The
green shrubs leave
an opening. Lace curtains.

A widow, a child, a
decorated soldier
all with palms. The deaf
mute hears no noise

from outside. The sun is
shining and the wind is
cold. Streamers colours feel-
ings. Many coeurs à la crème

take the place of liqueurs
and medicines. The
Barrière leads out and the
Metro leads in.

Two soldiers. How did the
soldiers earn their palms?
Does he hear from within?
The good and the bad together.

The liqueurs and the
medicines in turn
replace many ‘hearts.’
Left are the church of

Montrouge and the city.
Everything has its ‘sphere.’
A poet without a palm.
‘Du pain, s’il vous plaît.’

‘Je vous donne mon coeur’—she
has many of them
la bonne femme. For a long
time Montrouge was beyond

the Barrière. Restaurant
things and men. Two
ladies with palms and parasols.
‘Merci madame.’ The sun

is shining on the flower
carts, on the oranges,
on the avenue. ‘Ma fille!’
Bing-bang—bing
bang—Montrouge
church is still where it was.


III.

One thing at the expense
of another. People like
to protect themselves.
Everyone talks.

A poster across the way:
Fabrique de sommiers.
At one time she had just one
heart. Black silhouettes behind

the green shrubs from
outside, is that why they
speak? The factory is necessary
like the restaurant. The couple

over there are sharing one
coeur à la crème. The sun
shines equally on the dark
figures of people—darker

on Sunday than on other
days—and on white tables
—whiter on Sunday than
on other days. Flower

barrows by the footpath.
The dove of the Ark carried
such a green branch. The
deaf-mute sees well enough.

Behind me through the glass
a bit of the fortifications
—posters to the fore. The petit
trottin has two coeurs

à la crème. On working days
it is different at this hour.
All the same. Barrows with
apples. ‘Merci madame.’

‘L’addition, s’il vous plaît.’
Does he see more? Behind
the fortifications apaches
asleep on the grass. The
foreigner over there is eating

his coeur à la crème all
alone. An hour later, again
different. Barrows with oranges.
Montrouge—Gare de l’est

—Gare de l’est—Montrouge
in red on yellow. Rhoe-aeh-hae!
One is not yet out of the city.
A soldier. No people: chairs,

tables, carafes, siphons
are again ‘themselves.’
Barrows everywhere. Coming
and going. This automobile

he does not see. Apache, city,
police: each exists through
the others. He has a coeur
à la crème? Who is ‘himself’?

‘Caisse.’ Ebb and flow.
‘Qu’est-ce que vous prenez,
madame?’ The avenue runs
on beyond the Barrière. A coeur
à la crème is not only soft but

also white. Pang. The ‘caisse’ is
still operating—thanks to money.
Both the trams alike but their content
is different. The fille de sale

is not deaf-mute. At night,
not individuals. ‘Vous
avez terminez, monsieur?’
A glass of wine is knocked over.

Breakage. Heads and hats
above evergreens. Taller ones.
Outside, a child is spelling:
A-lec-san-dre. The orange

was deaf-mute. Beef.
Only the crowd is moving
but the avenue is alive.
Chairs, yellow and blue. Who

experiences everything and
stays unchanged? Evergreens
about as tall as the normal man.
From this inside I see erdnaxela

on the flap of the terrace
awning against the light.
Which ‘speaks’ most? A freight
train is running on the tram

tracks: with produce. White
-decked tables—the carafes—blue
siphons—people, under the terrace
awning and indoors. In winter

the restaurant changes
again. What is normal? But
is not Hebrew. My boeuf
bourguignon was also deaf-mute.

Without provisions, no city, no
restaurant. The glass wall
open: the little restaurant opens
itself to the sun. The lace curtain

in front of the glass wall, scribblings
over: TNAR—UATS—ER,
gigantic letters on the three
glass panels above the white.
‘Un bifteck aux pommes.’ ‘Alexandre’

reversed. Yet it too ‘spoke.’
Everything is linked. The whole
bordered by evergreens in boxes
that also are green. Outside.

Words tell their meaning on
the outside: RESTAURANT.
Who is normal? The word is
changed but some of the letters

have not. But differently. Yet
this hard-to-find link ‘’tween
pig and tong’ in orange. Inside
and outside: the owners and

the people asking for an
eight-hour day or night (says
L’Intran in my hands). Ornament
on the white has special meaning.

It must be jelly. The French
are not tall: in England the hedge
would have to be taller. Who
is the same from the inside

and from above? The orange
was orange and the beef was brown.
‘Un café vieux marc’. Worker
and intellectual. It is

what it is, both from inside
and out. That soldier over there
comes above it, so does that
lady and so does that priest.

From the inside. The green.
And yet each letter stays
itself: inside meaning streaming.
I would not have liked

either the other way around.
This workman does not indulge:
liqueur changes wine. A family.
‘Une pomme puree.’ A little man

with a stiff leg is near me.
Yet the outward remains the inward—
the outward is made up of
the inward and the inward

of the outward. ‘Une blanquette
de veau!’ The young woman puts
water, the young man puts water
in his wine, yet takes no liqueur.

The book is dedicated to Jackson Mac Low and one almost has to think of Jackson’s own Light Poems as a precedent for this obsession with color as an organizing principle for a suite of poems. But more than anything, this poem for me carries the feel of Jimmy Schuyler, with his sense of detail & penchant for description as sufficient to carry the work. That seems clear enough with the first section, with its long stanzas & soft enjambments. But it’s true also – maybe even more so – with the last two as well. Other pieces in the book, however, use completely different strategies & yet still arrive very close to this same place, as with this gorgeous untitled poem:

Reds lamp tresses


gyratory pianistic updrafts


of reading matters and socialite getups


by Arp’s four cousins’ famous


forte celibacy and so forth


from a long line of vanishing points


bundling off big settees


well into the wee small hours

This poem is every bit as painterly as “Mondrian’s Restaurant,” but on completely different terms, treating sound here as tho it were a palette of hues. Read aloud, the lines are marvelously physical on the lips & in the mouth, which I found surprising given just how few hard sounds are being employed & almost never clustered together to call attention to themselves.

If Modern Colours feels at moments a little too constrained – all of the artists & writers mentioned here have long since been canonized¹ – it’s also almost a text of how every element of a book can contribute to its overall effect. The execution is brilliant, including not just Curnow the writer, but Toby Curnow, Wystan’s son, who designed it. It’s one of those projects that forces you (if you are me, at any rate) to acknowledge that your own strengths as a poet lie elsewhere. I’ll never ever have a book so completely realized. So I simply stand in awe.


Mondrian’s studio
as reconstructed by Frans Postma

 

 

¹ Roman Jacobson knocks on Klebnikov’s (sic) door, Krychenykh drops by, Max Ernst has (or perhaps is) a dream, there’s a portrait of Picabia, Lissitzky’s room is deconstructed, we see Modigliani’s "mob," etc.



Wednesday, February 15, 2006

 

I’m convinced that, for whatever reason, Kent Johnson just isn’t having fun if he isn’t up to mischief. Fortunately – an adverb I use with some caution – Johnson has boundless energy when it comes to attracting same. First there was Araki Yasusada, mild-mannered Hiroshima native & fan of Jack Spicer, in some ways the most successful literary hoax since Ern Malley. Much about Yasusada was so evidently politically incorrect – aided none too subtly by having his name reversed as tho it were English (the Japanese would have called him Yasusada Araki, rather like bad-boy photographer Nobuyoshi Araki). This project was followed by The Miseries of Poetry, a series of collaborative “traductions” between Johnson & the equally non-existent Alexandra Papaditsas. Published by the estimable Skanky Possum in 2003, this book appears to be entirely out of print & none of the usual rare book search sites show any copies available for sale. Miseries, which for some reason my imagination always hears as The Miniseries of Poetry, is a 24-page chapbook with a 9-page intro and no less than 12-pages of blurbism purportedly written by everyone from John Ashbery to Alan Sondheim. The book is dedicated to Johnson’s first born with the admonition

Reject Poetry with all of your might.

Most recently, Effing Press, the Possum’s cross-town (and friendly) rival in Austin, brought out Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War, a chapbook that is unique in Johnson’s endeavors – even including his relatively straightforward work as anthologist & literary translator – in that it is a book of poems Johnson claims to have written himself. This is the volume that Johnson compared to Eliot Weinberger’s What I Heard About Iraq as one of two books that

stand as full and open responses to the war

That’s an interesting claim to contemplate, particularly since – like Double Flowering & The Miseries both – it is obsessed with poetry’s relationship to institutions in the global economy (and within that obsession, always the question of identity). Lyric Poetry begins with an open letter to the McCarthyite thugs of Campus Watch, imploring them to turn their lights on Johnson (and the book’s verso notes that “All royalties are to be donated to Campus Watch U.S.A.,” even tho the initiated will understand that Lyric Poetry will generate no royalties). This sort of overt begging for attention, especially in a meta-critical frame, is almost the signature Johnson move. Reading it always feels lurid like coming upon a friend in the act of masturbation, then pausing to watch.

The book then proceeds through a series of nine works, followed by an afterword every bit as winsome and winning as the preface, a review of a Charles Bernstein piece read at an event for the anti-war anthology Enough, in which Bernstein – whose piece is referenced, but largely undescribed – is determined by Johnson to be “exclusivist and fundamentalist in his poetics” apparently because Bernstein has failed to produce the kind of instrumentalist anti-literature that characterizes Weinberger’s pastiche parallelogram. The argument is that if language poets aren’t writing agit-prop anti-war pieces, therefore their politics are corrupt. It’s a deliberately thuggish move on Johnson’s part, and he means it as such, essentially playing Denise Levertov to Bernstein’s Robert Duncan.

But this is not a condemnation of Johnson or his tactics in that piece, which I see less as an assault & more as the perpetual Johnsonian plea for attention, leavened by a serious concern for the war AND a sense of the history of just such one-act morality plays over the past century. Indeed, instead of Levertov, Johnson could just as easily be playing Robert Silliman Hillyer to Bernstein’s Ezra Pound, condemning Pound’s poetics for its politics. Johnson knows, perhaps more than most, that suborning one to the other would be the intellectual equivalent of suicide, an act we’ve seen played out on more than a few occasions.

Further – and I almost want to put that word in caps as well – FURTHER, the nine works that come between these two deliberately falsified provocations demonstrate exactly the kind of knowledge about which his postface feigns ignorance.

The first, “Mission,” is an adaptation not of Archilochus, as Johnson claims, but from another 7th century Greek poet, Mimnermus. Thus Johnson:

We decamped from Pylos, barbarian town smack in a boulder field

and set oar to lovely Asia, making fair Kolophon our base. We gathered

our strength for a fortnight, writing poems and sharpening our swords

by the sea. On the morning the oracle spoke in tongues, the main column

followed the rushing river through the forest, while our unit of ten went upward

and west, along a tributary stream. At a small waterfall we stopped to rest

on some moss and gazed at our golden helmets and shields in reflecting pool.

We spoke in low voices of the beauty around us, of the dark, darting trout,

and of the strange, haunting songs in the towering trees. We spoke of time, and

friendship, and truth. Then each of us drank deeply from the pool.

 

Aided by the gods, we stormed Smyrna, and burned its profane temples to the ground.

And Mimnermus:

When we left the lofty city of Neleian Pylos, we came by ship to the pleasant land of Asia; and possessing overwhelming violence, we settled at lovely Colophon, leaders full of terrible hybris. From there, we set forth from the Asteis river and by the will of the gods took Aeolian Smyrna.

Johnson follows with a poem called “Baghdad” whose unacknowledged (but patently obvious) primary source turns out to be Margaret Wise Brown, tho note along the way the swipes he takes at Williams & Vendler:

O, little crown of iron forged to likeness of imam's face,
what are you doing in this circle of flaming inspectors and bakers?

And little burnt dinner all set to be eaten
(and crispy girl all dressed with scarf for school),
what are you doing near this shovel for dung-digging,
hissing like ice-cubes in ruins of little museum?

And little shell of bank on which flakes of assets fall,
can't I still withdraw my bonds for baby?

Good night moon.
Good night socks and good night cuckoo clocks.

Good night little bedpans and a trough where once there and inn
(urn of dashed pride)
what are you doing beside little wheelbarrow
beside some fried chickens?

And you, ridiculous wheels spinning on mailman's truck,
truck with ashes of letter from crispy girl all dressed with scarf for school.
why do you seem like American experimental poets going nowhere
on little exercise bikes?

Good night barbells and ballet dancer's shoes
under plastered ceilings of
Saddam Music Hall.
Good night bladder of Helen Vendler and a jar from
Tennessee.
(though what are these doing here in
Baghdad?)

Good night blackened ibis and some keys.
Good night, good night.

(And little mosque popped open like a can, which same as factory
of flypaper has blown outward, covering the shape of man with it
(with mosque): He stumbles up Martyr's Promenade. What does it
matter who is speaking, he murmurs and mutters, head a little bit
on fire. Good night to you too).

Good night moon.
Good night poor people who shall inherit the moon.

Good night first edition of Das Kapital, Novum Organum,
The Symbolic Affinities between Poetry Blogs and Oil Wells
,
and the Koran.

Good night nobody.

Good night Mr.
Kent, good night, for now you must
soon wake up and rub your eyes and know that you are dead.

There is an elegance here that is quite apart from the structure of Good Night Moon – as there is in “Mission” & almost anything Johnson writes in verse form. But Johnson’s question about Helen Vendler’s bladder is a good one? What is it doing here? And what is the point being made by equating a burned child (crispy girl) with fried chickens with William Carlos Williams? Is Williams being equated here with Col. Sanders & napalm? Like so much that is going on in these poems, these details are like free-floating improvised explosive devices salted throughout what is actually beautiful poetry. It’s a combination that Johnson has been perfecting since the earliest of Araki Yasusada & here it’s particularly effective. But it’s also particularly irresponsible, which I suspect it actually has to be in order to be so effective. Johnson’s poems are like unchained pit bulls tossed into a school yard – somebody is going to get bit. But you almost have to admire all that taut muscle & those unstoppable jaws.

The next piece, “Poem Upon a Typo Found in an Interview of Kenneth Koch, Conducted by David Shapiro,” offers a parody of a particular side of the New York School, that uptown side both Koch & Shapiro have always inhabited. As written, the poem is both loving & spiteful:

7. I remember those good old days, whilom it was me, and Will and Ben and Chris and the wholesome lads of the laste avant-garde.

And, of course, a footnote crediting Shapiro for turning Johnson on to poetry,

thus changing my life. (Whether I should thank Shapiro with all of my heart or send him a very powerful letter bomb is a question I often ask myself.)

That parenthetical sentence is the only one in this book I completely believe.

This poem is followed by what I take as partly a parody of Projectivist poetics, partly a satire on the current generation of poets: “When I First Read Ange Mlinko.” As with the New York School piece, it is both loving & spiteful.

The next piece, “Forwarded Message Follows,” ostensibly is an email from one Ossama Husein at Sudan State University, addressed not to Johnson but to “Dear Mr. David Bromige,” inviting him to the Khartoum Translation Conference, where

We passion to invite another poet of America, Mr. Kent, who also is credenced in your two countries and perhaps others, to be a racist. (In his reply to our Central Council, he spoke: “I am honestly not sure.”) Still we are opened, and we have most little, but our flowing tents which appear (to all purposes and meanings) to be sailboats in the deserts, are yours.

At one level, this is the crudest imitation of English as a Second Language imaginable. Yet soon we have embarked on a very credible translation Leonel Rugama’s most famous poem, “The Earth Is A Satellite Of The Moon,” whose very last line is

Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.

After which the alleged author writes:

Well, in realness, I do not know why I give this poem, except that I know you very much like poems. Don’t you agree it was translated, without doubtfulness, by someone most self-congratulatory, so angry at his own country, yet blind as Oedipus to the terrorisms of non-white peoples? (Forgive me. I am smoking opium from Afghanistan. It betters my English, which you can tell is getting better as this letter, like a martyr, spills.)

The remainder of this book is every bit as masterful & lame, almost always at the same time, as these pieces. My question here is this: is this a full and open response to anything, let alone the war. It is worth noting at this point, as the reader who doesn’t see Johnson’s attack on Bernstein until the book’s end will almost inevitably sense, that Johnson himself has enacted consistently throughout this book the very same position that Bernstein himself advocated at that reading in 2003. Which is to say that Johnson is using Bernstein to attack himself. An almost perfect Johnsonian move, that.

It is entirely plausible that this is major poetry. Is it major war poetry? Is it war or anti-war poetry at all? Hardly. And I think that is the crux of what is so very hard to figure out about Johnson. At some level, he wants to be the next Richard Pryor of poetry, but it’s very hard to get props for using the N-word – and the blatantly racist parody of Sudanese English is exactly that – if you’re a Midwestern white boy. So what we end up with here is some superb writing, often penned completely without judgment & filled with many nasty little moments therein. That doesn’t make this book bad, but it does make it very weird. At some level, it makes me long for the moral clarity of the Fugs’ song, Kill for Peace.

Over the years since I first met Johnson in Leningrad, I have been both impressed & appalled at his hijinx, often both at once, and will concede to having been the person who brought Double Flowering to its eventual publisher, Roof Books. Johnson & I are, I believe, equally appalled at the horrors of the war in Iraq, famine in Africa & unprecedented oil profits here at home. We differ only in our idea of how poets might go about opposing it. Lyric Poetry may be a remarkably polished tantrum, but it’s a tantrum nonetheless.



Tuesday, February 14, 2006

 


Kent Johnson

After sending me the note I posted yesterday, Kent Johnson went on in a later email to muse the following:

What seems funny to me, frankly, is that the "non-mainstream" poetry world has produced exactly two books so far that stand as full and open responses to the war – Weinberger's and my own Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz.

To which he appended, in a later email, “That I've heard of, at least.”

All of which made me think about the nature of anti-war poetry itself. When I wrote directly of Weinberger’s dystopian epic, Eliot wrote to say that he’d never claimed to be a poet, and doesn’t claim What I Heard in Iraq to be a poem. But if it’s not a poem, it certainly is poem-like in many of its strategies, and many of its effects.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the composition of “Wichita Vortex Sutra II,” for my money the greatest anti-war poem of the Vietnam era. It may even be Ginsberg’s finest poem. By now, everyone pretty much knows the story of how “Sutra” was written, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky & friends driving around Wichita, Kansas, with a tape recorder turned on, later apparently to be transcribed & linebreaks added. I wonder if that recording itself still exists and, if so, what it would take to get it up on Ubuweb or PENNsound? Certainly the final product doesn’t have the happenstance feel of something tossed off or even improvised, although it surely carries tell-tale signs of the spoken.

When “Wichita Vortex Sutra II” was created, the war – dating it from the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” – was just 18 months old. It would be another 98 months before the last helicopter would wobble upwards & pull away from the U.S. embassy roof in what was then called Saigon. Roughly 85 percent of that conflict, at least from the U.S. vantage, still lay in the future, tens of thousands of American casualties yet to come, literally millions of Vietnamese (for whom the war was already well into its second decade in 1966).

When I think of anti-war poems & Vietnam, efficacy is not the standard I’m looking at or for. Ginsberg’s poem didn’t stop the war any more than Picasso’s Guernica halted the rise of fascism. Plus Ginsberg’s was not the only significant antiwar poem of the Vietnam period. Robert Duncan’s “The Fire Passages 13” seems the obvious other example, but one could claim the title sequence of George Oppen’s Pultizer-Prize winning Of Being Numerous (and some other poems in that same book) as well, although I tend to think of Numerous more as being one of the great poems of the Second World War. In a time in which every reading by Robert Bly was an anti-war reading, in which poets as diverse as James Dickey, Diane Di Prima & Donald Justice were all penning antiwar poems, the question I come back to – four decades hence – is what remains? And what constitutes an anti-war poem?

Let me ask that question in a more difficult way: are The Pisan Cantos anti-war poems? They certainly do not appear to be pro-war poems as such. But it’s hard to imagine them as any other than as war poems – that is their field of engagement. They are, to borrow Johnson’s terms, “responses to the war.” Yet to concede even that is to suggest that some of the greatest poetry of the Second World War was penned by an enemy in a prisoner-of-war camp. If you exclude The Pisan Cantos as war poems, then it would seem to me you would have to exclude H.D.’s Trilogy, especially her work on the bombing of London The Walls Do Not Fall. Yet to include these works seems to me to move along a path that ineluctably leads to the idea that every poem by Paul Celan, for example, must be read/understood as a war poem.

This question really concerns the epistemological dimension of the poem, the degree to which any text can be said to be (or not be) about. That is an issue that has been fodder for a generation of theory now, and one can track writing’s bad conscience toward this relationship back even before Joyce demonstrated the slippery slope that leads more or less directly from ”The Dead” through Ulysses to Finnegans Wake. Poets approach this from more than a few different angles along that path – Duncan’s strategy in Passages, for example, of addressing the issue directly (albeit through a discussion of a painting, Piero di Cosimo’s painting “The Forest Fire”), as part of a far larger sweep of issues in the poem is not so dissimilar, frankly, from Pound’s own solution.

It’s interesting to think of who didn’t write a Vietnam War poem – virtually all of the New York School, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson – as it is to think of the degree to which this epistemological question lay at or near the heart of the breakup between Duncan & Denise Levertov – Duncan, the antiwar poet, taking a different position when confronted with the collapse of Levertov’s work from 1970 onward into so much reified politically correct scolding. A parallel discussion was going on, it should be noted, with regards to the poetry of Amiri Baraka, as many of his old pals among the New Americans were not so enchanted with his turn toward Maoism. Here, tho, the war was a more peripheral issue, tho I’m sure Baraka would have noted that it was hardly peripheral to black men, who were being wounded & killed in disproportionate numbers. And there was a third debate during that same period, involving Edward Dorn & the rejection of Black Mountain poetics visible in ‘Slinger. It would be interesting for some doctoral student to look at all three of those events together – if there was a “politics” to Dorn’s excommunication, it was certainly oblique.

It’s worth noting further, just because it’s the way Johnson posed the question, that neither “Sutra” nor Passages 13 were themselves books, tho “Sutra” was reprinted as a poster more than once and The Fire” if I am not mistaken was first published by Poetry magazine (something that could not happen today with its current anti-modern regime). The closest thing I can come to as a book-length response poetically to the Vietnam war by a major poet of that period is Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, just possibly the most embarrassing book ever penned by any of the New Americans, filled with romantic fantasies of what it would be like to be a “real” revolutionary. Dedicated, no less, to Bob Dylan, self-admitted fan of Barry Goldwater that he was.

So I’m not so surprised that more such works don’t now exist – nor for that matter do I think that it means that the current generation of post-avant poets are politically quietist any more than I think the absence of similar writing by Robert Creeley, say, ever meant that he wasn’t utterly appalled and sickened by the brutality & stupidity that was our imperial adventure in Southeast Asia. The issue is much more complicated than this. What is really sad & sick is that, 40 years after “Wichita Vortex Sutra II,” this whole question comes back to haunt us:

Three five zero zero is numerals

Headline language poetry, nine decades after Democratic Vistas

and the Prophecy of the Good Gray Poet

Our nation “of the fabled damned”

or else . . .

Language, language

Ezra Pound the Chinese Written Character for truth

defined as man standing by his word

Word picture:          forked creature

Man



Monday, February 13, 2006

 

Kent Johnson sent me a note, asking me to promote the following:

Anniversary of the Political Lie -20th of March

An Appeal for a worldwide reading of Eliot Weinberger's "What I Heard about Iraq" on 20th of March 2006, to mark the third anniversary of the outbreak of the war

The Peter-Weiss-Foundation for Art and Politics based in Berlin is sending out an appeal to commit the 20th of March (the third anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq) as an anniversary of the political lie. The purpose of the events and activities linked to this day should be to heighten awareness about contents and forms of political communication and to expose and criticize the political lie – academically, artistically or in form of caricatures. Although at the beginning of the 21st century it is evident that the lie still belongs to the standard set of certain political movements, it has to be made clear at the same time, that the forces which oppose it do not yield. The first anniversary of the political lie will be held on 20th of March 2006 in different cities worldwide and among other events with readings of Eliot Weinberger’s “What I Heard about Iraq “.

The text is a collage of the statements made by American administration officials and their allies leading up to the war, and then, after the war began, of these same officials, as well as American soldiers and ordinary Iraqi citizens. It is a history of the Iraq war in "soundbites," from 1992 to January 2005. After its publication in the London Review of Books, the text was the most-visited article ever on the magazine's website, and was reproduced or linked on some 100,000 other websites. It has been translated in many languages. A sequel, "What I Heard about Iraq in 2005," was published by the LRB at the end of 2005. See both texts at www.literaturfestival.com.

Last year, a dramatic reading of "What I Heard about Iraq" was held at the Berlin festival on September 11th. Other independent readings have been held in Sydney, New York, Luxembourg, India, and various other parts of the world. A multimedia stage adaptation has been running in Los Angeles for some months. Opera houses are contemplating creating a libretto using the text.

This Appeal has been signed by Chris Abani, USA/ Nigeria; Darryl Accone, South Africa; David Albahari, USA; Tariq Ali, UK; Hanan al-Shayk, Lebanon/ UK; Maria Teresa Andruetto, Argentina; Paul Auster, USA; Gabeba Baderon, South Africa; Biyi Bandele, UK; Russel Banks, USA; Shabbir Bannobhei, South Africa; Mohammed Bennis, Marocco; Abbas Beydoun, Lebanon; Martha Brooks, Canada; Bora Cosic, Croatia/ D; Bei Dao, USA/ China; Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine; Lydia Davis, USA; Raymond Federman, USA; Jochen Gerz, France; Amitav Ghosh, USA/ India; Juan Goytisolo, Spain; Nedim Gürsel, Turkey;Elke Heidenreich, Germany; Christoph Hein, Germany; Rebecca Horn, Germany; Iman Humaydan Younes, Lebanon; Siri Hustvedt, USA; Victor Jerofejew, Russia; Ko Un, Korea; Hanif Kureshi, UK; Doris Lessing, UK; Simon Levy, USA; Tedi López Mills, Mexico; Claudio Magris, Italy; Michael Palmer, USA; Harold Pinter, UK; Roberto Piumini, Italy; Peter Ripken, Germany; Alberto Ruy-Sanchez, Mexico; Boualem Sansal, Algeria; Alka Saraogi, India; Peter Schneider, Germany; Roland Stelter, Germany; Ana Paula Tavares, Angola; Jutta Treiber, Austria; Tenzin Tsunde, Tibet/ India; Spiros Vergos, Greece; Mphutlane Wa Bofelo, South Africa/ Azania; Abdourahman A. Waberi, Djibouti/France; Anne Waldman, USA; Eliot Weinberger, USA; Jeanette Winterson, UK; Yang Lian NZ/ UK/ China

Readings will be held March 20th 2006 in Athens; Basel; Berlin, Sophiensæle; Bruxelles, Kaaitheater; Calcutta; Durban, Time of the Writer Festival; Everett; Frankfurt, schauspielfrankfurt; Los Angeles, Fountain Theatre;  Magdeburg, theatermagdeburg; Melbourne, La Mama Theatre; New York, Theatre 88; Prague, divadlo Komedie; San Francisco; Zürich, Theater am Neumarkt and other cities.

Signatures for this appeal and ideas for the Anniversary of the Political Lie on March 20th 2007 are welcomed.

Warmest Wishes
Ulrich Schreiber
Peter-Weiss-Foundation for Arts and Politics
Li
nienstr. 156/157
10115 Berlin



Sunday, February 12, 2006

 

Starting to make some interesting use of its $100 million endowment, the Poetry Foundation has put up the skeleton of a massive poetry website that promises, at first blush, to be quite a bit more than just the archives of the narrow School of Quietude (SoQ) ‘zine that begat this organization. One part of the site consists of best-seller lists derived from Nielsen BookScan. If ever you wanted to know why it matters that the SoQ dominates the eight trade publishers who, in turn, dominate book review section advertising in newspapers & distribution through the chains, this list is it.

More hopeful, perhaps, is a still mostly unpopulated “Poetry Tool” – attention Flarfists!! – that, far from being a tool (sorry ‘bout that, flarfonauts) appears instead to be the embryo of a poetry archive. The “tool” divvies up poems via this list of top-level subcategories:

·         Category

·        Occasion

·        Title

·        First Line

·        Recently Added

·        Glossary Term

·        Most Popular

“Category,” as it turns out, is a marker for content, of which the following kinds are possible:

·        Cycle of Life

·        Relationships

·        Activities

·        Nature

·        Religion

·        Arts & Sciences

·        Social Commentaries

·         Mythology & Folklore

One wonders where, say, the poems of Clark Coolidge fit in that slicing of the pie. The same question arises for the subcategory “Occasion,” which at the very least is more festive (save maybe for funerals & farewells):

·        Anniversary

·        Birth

·        Birthdays

·        Christmas

·        Cinco de Mayo

·        Easter

·        Engagements

·        Farewells & Good Luck

·        Father's Day

·        Funerals

·        Get Well & Recovery

·        Graduation

·        Gratitude & Apologies

·        Halloween

·        Hanukah

·        Independence Day

·        Kwanzaa

·        Labor Day

·        Memorial Day

·        Mother's Day

·        New Year's

·        Passover

·        Ramadan

·        Rosh Hashanah

·        September 11th

·        St. Patrick's Day

·        Thanksgiving

·        Toasts & Celebrations

·        Valentine's Day

·        Weddings

·        Yom Kippur

Why not occasions like Doubt, Ennui or Pissiness?

One subcategory that absolutely fascinates me is “Glossary Term.” That’s actually the subcategory for forms, but why, I wonder, can’t they say that? It includes:

·        Aubade

·        Ballad

·        Blank Verse

·        Common Measure

·        Concrete Poetry

·        Couplet

·        Double Dactyl

·        Dramatic Monologue

·        Elegy

·        Epigram

·        Epistle

·        Epithalamion

·         Free Verse

·        Haiku

·        Limerick

·        Mixed

·        Ode

·        Ottava Rima

·        Pantoum

·        Pastoral

·        Prose

·        Rhymed Stanzas

·        Sestina

·        Sonnet

·        Syllabic Verse

·        Terza Rima

·        Villanelle

Alas, no flarf there.

But my favorite, hands down, is one of the subcategories not of poems, but of poets – “School or Period”:

·        Middle English

·        Renaissance

·        17th Century

·        Augustan

·        Romantic

·        Victorian

·        Georgian

·        Modern

·        Beat

·        Black Mountain

·        Confessional

·        Fugitive

·        Harlem Renaissance

·        Imagist

·        Language Poetry

·        New York School

·        Objectivist

That list suggests ten broad divisions for the 20th century, three for the 19th, one each for the two prior, then broader groupings before that (Do I hear the Beowulf poet protesting?). Of the ten subcategories for the 20th century, tho, only two, Confessional & Fugitive, are School of Quietude affairs (and Confessional, remember, was concocted by M.L. Rosenthal in order to make dullards like Lowell & Sexton “interesting” by insinuating some imaginary likeness to Ginsberg & O’Hara). Four – Imagist, Modern, Objectivist & Harlem Renaissance – clearly fall within avant traditions, while four others – Beat, Black Mountain, New York School and Language Poetry – can more accurately be characterized as post-avant.

You say you don’t fit into any of these categories? Maybe the Poetry Foundation doesn’t think you exist. Better get to work on those double dactyl toasts & celebrations.



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