Monday, August 07, 2006

 

A lot of the reading I do when I’m on vacation – which as of this morning is over, alas – is actually rereading. Favorite books, new editions, works that seemed to go by too quickly, books I feel I really need to study. Some of the books that fell into these categories this past month have included Joe Ceravolo’s selected poems, The Green Lake is Awake; Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts (a project I could read endlessly, which I think I must be endeavoring to do) and Stacy Doris’ Cheerleader’s Guide to the World: Council Book. I’d read the latter in a PDF format prior to publication after receiving it in hopes that I’d contribute a blurb. I was only too happy to do so at the time – I think of Doris as one of the really sharp new young poets, tho I’ve been thinking of her that way now for at least 15 years, and I loved the manuscript. Here’s my blurb:

Imagine Reese Witherspoon with the rebels in Chiapas, recounting the history of civilization & its collapse as transmitted by flying Tibetan monks. Alternately, imagine the love child of William Burroughs & John Berryman, but with pom-poms & a little literalism on the shotgun formation. Give me an A! This is a great book.

In retrospect, I’m pleased at just how on target this description seems to me. It captures not only the dynamics of the book, but the sense of play involved as well. Here is a sample from the text which, as I read it, is a (roughly) 80-page serial poem. All but one four-pager right near the end are less than a page long, most about the length of this piece.

Laugh1ng M1rrors Puk1ing
in whose chinks we conspire
on oxygen and plot and wish for bed
and huddle just a little ore
sentient pre-clobbered
perhaps already gone
live this midget circle

parallel yet slashing
cross-current on the field
charged last down hollows
assisted as if rumored worlds
could be of a instinct
less foundational

Laugh1ng M1rrors Puk1ing is a major character here. In a preface, Doris writes:

Concentrating on my life’s work about Money-Love-Writing (how they’re the same fault) which involves Ancient Greek and Arabic metrics, I got to thinking of Pindar as a cheerleader so I starting writing this which I thought would be a part of that but it isn’t really. Plus living here [San Francisco, where Doris teaches at SF State] now in the West which means going to Central America to swim as often as possible. I started considering Mesoamerican time and its ballgames which bring me to our own….

The leader is Laugh1ng M1rrors Puk1ng, short for Love Money Poetry.

Doris later notes that

The text in general is a sort of sandwich-translation read-through of four books: Popul Vuh, Paterson, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Secret Autobiographies of Jigme Lingpa.

Maybe half of the pages here also are illustrated by football play diagrams, not unlike this:

There is, to say the least, a lot going on in any one of these remarkably compressed lyrics. What is most remarkable, however, is that as a literary experience, as text, it all fits together & doesn’t feel busy or stitched together in the slightest. Here are two other sections, somewhat further along in the text:

Outside there’s a world
subject to my incursions
rubble a playground female
for concrete
action and resources
so what if it fights back
cliffside in proof
numbering as proof
skid along proof
outpaced their dogs

§

Wait! those ugly young
legs rough worked arms
to toss
Yah Yah Yah Yah Yah
back down now girl

breathless surveys after
(ours but expensive)
possessively tilted weight
on the ball other thigh
lift arm swing forward

clever if we’re monkeys.

Below the second of these texts, there is a diagram in which the quarterback drops back right while both wide-outs and a tight end angle into the center of the field for a screen pass, the archetypal West Coast offense play.

One of the dimensions you might not get just from the introduction is the constant gender interrogation going on here – after all, football offers a very clear framework for what both men & women “should be” doing. Indeed, when a male is a cheerleader – as was our president once upon a time – it sets up all kinds of messages that counter traditional role types.

Underneath these multiple realms – origin myths, football plays, the history of a community, or of a civilization, two different angles into Tibetan spirituality – one senses not so much a narrative as such (tho, in fact, one can be glimpsed at times, tho only that) as an ongoing discussion precisely about roles in the world.

What is most impressive about this book, tho, isn’t any one of these things. It’s the degree to which Doris holds all of them in balance & focuses instead on the writing at hand. That’s a sign of the great ambition & intellectual power here and it’s thrilling to see & to read. This book isn’t like anything anyone in my own generation could have written, regardless of whatever echoes it might call up (this time through, I heard Dorn, which I’d missed the first time, for example). It’s something new on the horizon altogether.



Sunday, August 06, 2006

 

A note on comments. I have been moderating them this past week, which is to say that I have had to approve each one before it was published to the blog itself. To date, I’ve rejected seven – three vitriolic ones from one of the people who persuaded me to shut comments off a month ago, two others that were off-topic put-downs of other contributors to the comments stream. And a couple by somebody who felt that their note should have been posted instantly to the blog and so sent it three times trying to see what was wrong. I’ve also gotten two emails from contributors about comments they thought I should have rejected. Significantly, each email concerned the other person.



Saturday, August 05, 2006

 

In winter 1947, my father, who had just turned 20, crashed a Cessna whose wings had iced up near The Dalles, Oregon, while smuggling alcohol from Portland to the “dry county” where we all lived in Southeastern Washington. He walked away from the wreckage, albeit with a broken back that kept him in the hospital for a few months.

In August 1965, while working as an electrician at a paper recycling plant in Charleston, South Carolina, he went into a utility building at the facility & flicked on a switch, not realizing that there was a gas leak inside. The ensuing explosion melted the pipes in the building. Again, my father walked to the ambulance, tho with third degree burns over 80 percent of his body. He lived for another eight days before his kidneys refused to process the poisons associated with all that burned flesh & he died. He was 38 and had been married three times, starting a family with each. Although I didn’t know it at the time, not having seen my dad at all since I was ten & then less than a half dozen times over the previous seven years, his death came on the tenth birthday of my half-sister Nancy.

Jack Spicer also died that week, just 40. Poets, like rock musicians & revolutionaries, have a rep for not living all that long. Over the years, I’ve gradually ticked off all the major poets who have had shorter lives than mine, a list that now includes Shakespeare (52 years old when he died), Dante (56), Chaucer (57) & Charles Olson (59). For me, tho, the real marker of age came some time back, in April of 1985, when I had thus outlived my own father.

So today I’m 60. I’ve been lucky. When my father was in the hospital with his broken back, I had a bad case of pneumonia, so bad according to my mother (I was all of six months old at the time & have no memory of this whatsoever) that the doctor had filled out a death certificate, leaving only the time of death blank. Fortunately, penicillin saved my life. That was just the first of a number of worst-case-scenario “could have beens” that I somehow sidestepped. Even in the past decade, the Department of Energy flew me to Seattle just to check out my thyroid – I was a “down-wind” baby back in the good old days when the Hanford Nuclear Reactor (the facility that built the bomb dropped on Nagasaki) took care of radioactive waste by putting it into steel drums buried next to the Columbia River. I made it through that one too.

I really don’t have a sense of myself being “old,” tho my twins may tell you I’m ancient & my knees might agree. I’ve been fortunate to finish the first three stages of my lifework – The Age of Huts, Tjanting and The Alphabet – and I hope in the next couple of years to have all in print at the same time, including the first complete version of The Age of Huts. I’ve come to understand that getting your work in print is one challenge – keeping it in print is a difficulty of a whole other level. Here too, I’ve been lucky & I know it.

Universe is getting started nicely, tho I can’t quite imagine how I’ll live long enough to finish it – the plan is for 360 booklength poems. So I’m building that eventuality into the form, or trying to. Or kidding myself that I can. In any event, the road ahead is clear. I have a great family. I enjoy my work. My health is not bad.I never saw anyone put this circumstance, or ones much like it, better than Bob Creeley: Onward!

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Friday, August 04, 2006

 

It was Fred Jameson, the Stephen Colbert of literary theory, who first called Robert Duncan’s onetime housemate, Philip K. Dick, the “Shakespeare of Science Fiction,” a superlative that caught on, but ultimately does nobody all that much good. Still, reading even a secondary work of his, such as The Simulacra, you realize pretty much why Jameson, whose usual mode of characterization is dour & cynical, was provoked into making such a grandiose claim.

Like many of Dick’s books, The Simulacra succeeds in spite of itself. The work is less of a complete thought in & of itself & more of a series of terrific beginnings. There are, tucked in its 214 pages, the embryonic form of at least a dozen wonderful, well-formed, science fiction novels. Some of these include:

What happens when a post-apocalyptic version of the U.S. (now merged with Germany) outlaws psychoanalysis in favor of shorter term therapies that center on the prescription of psychoactive pharmaceuticals. As told from the perspective of the last psychoanalyst.

What would happen if a group of human beings mutated and began to take on the dynamics of evolving into a new species? How would the old species of homo sapiens react & relate to them?

The U.S. government is run by a secret cabal who use a figurehead – a simulacra (what we would now call an android) – as president.

Government has become an extension of celebrity – indeed the First Lady is so popular that the president is whoever happens to be married to her at the moment, which is determined by election. The First Lady is young & beautiful & never appears to age, which nobody seems to notice, not even after many, many decades.

The leading psychokinetic concert pianist – he plays without touching the keys – goes insane. In the process, he begins to understand that this skill can be put to other uses.

Time travel enables those who control to not only see into the future, but to control the past, going back, say, to persuade the Nazis not to bring on the holocaust. Different groups with different agendas compete in going back to alter events so that the future develops in ways more favorable to their causes. This gradually develops into a constantly under revision game of chess. Whoever can alter the future in ways that the other side has not anticipated (and already prepared for) wins.

The politics of government contracts, as seen from the vantage of two brothers, one of whom works for a large Haliburton-like conglomerate used to no-bid contracts & inside information, the other of whom works for a small start-up, not unlike a Silicon Valley dot com group. The wife of one brother abandons him for the other.

Everything in this administered dystopia is regulated through your housing. For you to maintain your residence, you must pass tests and be retested on a regular basis. The politics of such testing and how they play out in the lives of a single, 10,000 unit building.

The frontiers on Earth have all been urbanized, if not exactly civilized. People who crave space & land are doing what they’ve always done, emigrating, only this time its to the dustbowl called Mars.

I’m sure I’m leaving out some obvious ones, but I think the point is clear. Rather than telling “a story,” Dick offers his readers here so many different and incomplete angles into the narrative at hand, not one of them developed fully or really to completion, that the result is dizzying – one moves so often from tale to tale that one is left breathless, pining almost to see one or more of these waded into as fully as a Neal Stephenson or Lucius Shepherd might be able to accomplish. It’s that breathless darting from tale to tale that is the signature Dick effect, a consequence no doubt of his methamphetamine habit (as, at least partly, is the deep paranoia that underlies so many of these tales). If his characters seem flat, how does that make them different from those of William Gibson or Isaac Asimov? If he seems insensitive to the sensual possibilities of sentence & paragraph, how does that make him different from (long list here, starting with Rudy Rucker, the aforementioned Asimov & maybe including many of the crime novelists as well, starting with Robert B. “I’m so literary” Parker)? Or, for that matter, Dan Brown?

The incompleteness of Dick’s narrative threads is essential to their power. It is, in fact, directly related to Shakespeare’s most important literary device, leaving out key elements from his source materials so that his characters appear to act without sufficient external cause. That’s what gives Macbeth & Othello & Hamlet their opacity, their materiality, their depth – it’s what makes them ”real.” Dick isn’t after the same effect here –he’s not character-centric n the same way, it’s not people he’s after but worlds. Dick wants to show us a realm so rich in potentiality that its Otherness, its absolute Oddness is unmistakable, and that’s what makes his vision credible (a better word here than believable). It’s also why (and how) Hollywood can get a nearly infinite number of film plots from his writing – you don’t need an entire book: any one of the threads above could be fleshed out into a 120-page film script pretty directly. But it may also be why the most faithful renditions of his work into cinema don’t necessarily translate that well to film.

So, yeah, maybe Jameson’s claim is an instance – it’s not like he’s done this before – of theory gone slumming. Maybe Dick wasn’t Shakespeare on crystal. But the idea isn’t as off the mark as it might seem either.



Thursday, August 03, 2006

 

Of all the major language poets, the one whose work is the hardest to get a sense of in its entirety almost certainly is Robert Grenier, who turns 65 tomorrow. You have to know the man personally & to have been following his writing pretty much since his days as a protégé of Robert Lowell (see his first book, Dusk Road Games) to have a chance. His most important early publication, Sentences, isn’t a book at all, but a box of 500 four-by-six cards with text printed on one side of each card housed in an elaborate one-piece “Chinese box.” When, after decades out of print, a version of the box was made available on the web via Whale Cloth, the box’s original publisher, a catastrophic server crash took the site down. For reasons I will never understand, there appears to have been no back-up. Another of Grenier’s “books,” CAMBRIDGE M’ASS (Tuumba, 1979) is in fact a collection of 265 poems printed on one side of a single 40-by-48 inch piece of paper, a book literally in the form of a poster. Sometime in the 1980s, some miscreant made off with my copy & I’ve never been able to replace it. Even the more traditional book, Oakland, also printed by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, is something of a challenge. You can find virtual versions on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse project. I use the plural there, since the site offers two alternatives: a series of photographed pages in high-res JPEGs & a “reading copy” in a PDF format. I highly recommend looking at the former & reading the latter. In some ways, absent the complete Sentences (excerpted in places like In the American Tree), Oakland gives the best sense of this stage of Grenier’s work that someone coming to his writing from outside the circle of language poets can get right now.

For Grenier, the greatest drama in literature occurs not at the level of the referential, but far earlier, in the very process of a reader’s letter & word recognition – most readers acknowledge or “get” most words after reading just a few letters, so that the actual process of reading entails micro-moments of concentration at the start of every word, interspersed with other lapses of concentration toward the end of longer words, such as interspersed or concentration. If the work is holographic, there is a second level of recognition occurring, as the mind gradually sorts out which words these might be:

When you make out a word – house in blue is probably the simplest here – it feels like an amazing accomplishment. While these graphic poems – they’re not quite vispo & certainly not your usual visual art, in that Grenier is focused here not on the visual so much as he is utilizing that dimension to explore a linguistic one – have appeared on the internet and in galleries, reproduced in startlingly beautiful large photographs whose production Grenier supervises, they’re really pages from those black hardback sized sketch books you can readily find in the notebook & journal section of any Barnes & Noble. You can see, for example, the binding in the center of the example above. Grenier notes that he has resisted using an easel or canvases for this work, since it is primarily writing & thus eminently a portable activity (viz. Kerouac’s sketches). The library at Stanford has acquired several of these one-of-a-kind literary products but with the recent retirement both of the librarian responsible for those acquisitions & Al Gelpi from the literature program there, it’s not clear if the library will continue to do so, or what plans it may have to make this unique collection available to more than the interested scholar who is willing to travel to Palo Alto to look firsthand.

One important new publication that has just come out, this time in French & English simultaneously, is 100 Sentences / 100 Phrases, “traduit de l’américain” by Martin Richet “avec l’auteur.” Richet & Grenier have taken one fifth of the original Sentences, translated them into French and then published them in a box format, this time using the sort of container one normally associates with a box of bon-bons. As with the original Sentences (and the short-lived virtual edition), this version uses the same courier typeface one associates – or did once – with the typewritten.

It’s ironic, to say the least, that the best way to get Sentences in English right now is to order the bilingual French edition. The translations themselves often work in ways very close to the spirit of the originals. For example

close
to
the
door

becomes

près
de
la
porte

or

it’s you

becomes

c’est toi

But sometimes the language itself doesn’t fully cooperate. For the example the hard consonants in the last word of

obtain from the brook

are essential to the effect of the poem. But in French, that is lost:

obtiens du ruisseau

If anything, one could argue that the French is a study in contrasts while the English is a one of cohesion & sonic carry-through. Overall, tho, this is a fascinating project. Partly because of the sheer size of these poems – miniatures are projects not of reduction but of magnification – each translation is quite recognizable (even to someone with only the smallest smattering of French, such as yours truly) as a reading of the original, an interpretation, comment or critique.

That last link suggests that 100 Sentences / 100 Phrases is available for 19,50 €, not much more than $20. I’ve heard concerns that the edition may already out of print (there were only 150 copies to start with), or at least very hard to come by. I suggest that you write directly to the publisher: Cuisines de l’immédiat, 249, rue Sainte-Catherine – 33000 Bordeaux, France or c.immediat@free.fr.



Wednesday, August 02, 2006

 

Here, in its entirety, is the history of Jack Kerouac’s Book of Sketches as given in that book itself:

In 1951, it was suggested to Jack Kerouac by his friend Ed White that he “sketch in the streets like a painter but with words.” In August of the following year, Kerouac began writing down prose poem “sketches” in small notebooks that he kept in the breast pockets of his shirts. For two years he recorded travels, observations, and meditations on art and life as he moved across America and down to Mexico and back. In 1957, Kerouac sat down with the fifteen handwritten sketch notebooks he had accumulated and typed them into a manuscript called Book of Sketches; he included a handful of new sketches he had written that year.

This information comes not from an editor’s forward, but rather on the front jacket flap. If there is an editor here, he or she has gone the Alan Smithee route and chosen to remain anonymous. What introductory essay there is here is by painter and onetime William Burroughs collaborator George Condo. Here is Condo at his most analytic:

Read this Book of Sketches and you’ll be amazed at what a genius Jack Kerouac was.

It’s a good thing, given that Kerouac’s work appears to be in the hands of what could be charitably described as people unfamiliar with handling substantial literary archives. There are a million questions here, many of which have to do with the relationship between the 15 small notebooks, the eventual typescript and what appears here on the page, short stanzas of print that don’t look much like prose at all, tho they read Kerouac’s version thereof:

Saturday afternoon in Rocky
Mt. woods – in a tankling
gray coupe the young father
crosses the crossroads with
his 4 dotters piled on the
seat beside him all eyes
– The drowsy store the
great watermelons sit dis-
posed in the sun, on the
concrete, by the fish box,
like so many fruit in
an artist’s bowl –
watermelon’s plain green
& the watermelon with
the snaky rills all
tropical & fat to burst
on the ground – came
from viney bottoms of
all this green fertility –
Behind Fats’ little shack,
under waving tendrils
of a pretty tree, the
smalltime Crapshooters
with strawhats & overalls
are shooting for 10¢
stakes – as peaceful &
regardant as deer in
the morning, or New
England boys sitting in
the high grass waiting for
the afternoon to pass.
Paul Blake ambles over
across the road to watch
the game, stands
back, arm on three,
watching smiling silence.
Cars pull up, men
squat – there goes Jack
to join them, everywhere
you look in the enormity
of this peaceful scene
you see him walking, on
soft white shoes, bemused
-- Last night a few
hotshots & local sailors
on leave grabbed those

There is a line break right here, tho the sentence itself continues onward, a typical detail that makes you wonder if this reflects the typescript, the notebook, both, neither, or what precisely. There is no way here to tell.

In his introduction, Condo writes “These poems just breathe and flow…” tho the book itself carries (in what I take to be Kerouac’s own hand) a frontispiece that reads parenthetically “(Proving that sketches aint verse).” The only other clue comes from a half-title page that reads:

Printed Exactly As They Were Written
On the Little Pages in the Notebooks
I Carried in My Breast Pocket 1952
Summer to 1954 December ………

(Not Necessarily Chronological)

You can see Kerouac’s bulging breast pocket in the infamous Kerouac wore khakis ad & as someone who periodically writes on the street, in public transportation, even in office meetings, I’m completely sympathetic with Kerouac’s occasional comments about what a weirdo this makes him seem at times to others. When I worked in the Tenderloin in the late 1970s, where I would occasionally find myself writing away in a notebook in a residential hotel that served as a shooting gallery while a septuagenarian drug dealer was going around the lobby with a literal TV tray full of offerings – as if it were dim sum or the dessert tray at a restaurant – the only way I could get away with writing was because everybody there already knew me & understood that I wasn’t a narc, even if I wasn’t a buyer either. No one has captured this aspect of writing so well as Kerouac – in some ways, I’ve never tried simply because he ensured that I didn’t need to do so.

So Book of Sketches proves to be, like so many recent additions to the published Kerouac oeuvre, half a loaf. On the one hand – and this is the most critical point – it is great to have this in print, it’s a fabulous read, a chance to watch Kerouac actively thinking about honing specific details of his obsessive, but quite freehand craft. On the other hand, it’s a poorly done version that stands as a placeholder for a properly edited and contextualized publication that won’t appear for decades, if at all.

Kerouac noted to his friends that by the time On the Road made him famous overnight in 1957, he had already written a lifetime of work over the previous decade, much of it in the compacted 1950-57 timeframe, between the good critical reviews and total lack of sales of his first (and most conventional) novel, The Town and the City, and the actually over-edited Legend of Duluoz books that were issued in the wake of The Road¹. Watching Kerouac invent fiction, invent prose, completely rethink the task of the writer from the ground up is the real story here, much more so than the romantic tale of the questing Beat guru whose beatific surface barely covers over the thick sludge of sentimental (or worse) stereotypes that represent the worst of Catholic working class culture in the Northeast.

Sketches partakes of both sides of Kerouac – there are passages here that could easily convince a woman never to read him again, a man who could have taken sensitivity training from Archie Bunker – and there is the careful, utterly honest crafter of observations trying to fathom how best to put down everything (note that depiction of watermelon or the comparison of craps players with deer & especially Kerouac’s use of the French form regardant there), with just an occasional hint of the alcoholism that would overwhelm Kerouac in just a few short years, robbing him of his ability to think & see well before it killed him. Unlike Jack Spicer, who was killed by booze even more quickly than Kerouac, but who wrote his very best work at the end, Kerouac was a writer who dwindled throughout his final decade, becoming more & more pathetic in stages.

So Sketches is still Kerouac on the ascent &, as such, represents a major publication of one of the towering talents of the past 50 years. But as a publication, Sketches also reminds the careful reader of all that can go wrong with the works of a major author.

 

¹ An unexpurgated version of On the Road is due to be released next year, on the 50th anniversary of the first publication.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

 

 

James L. Weil

1929 – 2006

                                Another Last Poem

                                In the end, what
                                I wanted was
                                to make an end

                                of it – which may
                                be why I wrote
                                so many last

                                poems. They say
                                there are things thought
                                beyond being

                                said, say how, oh!
                                I would it and
                                cannot. They say

                                as if there were
                                something to say.

 



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