Saturday, August 26, 2006

 

Lionel Essrog is the direct descendant of Benjamin Compson, the developmentally disabled narrator of the opening section of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But, as anyone who has read the two books knows, Faulkner’s classic is itself a worshipful homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses. But style in Ulysses, especially first-person style, whether that of Stephen Dedalus or Leopold Bloom, is relatively free form, playful – Joyce is making a point about realism’s commitment to a single uniform model of representation. Stream of consciousness, so called, is put through a variety of paces, shifting chapter by chapter, hour by hour as Bloomsday passes. Faulkner, on the other hand, deploys the device strictly to shape the character. If Quentin Compson is a pale version of Stephen Dedalus, it is Benjamin and his rapacious brother Jason who represent the triumph of this literary device, Benjamin especially because his developmental challenges rob him of an ability to interpret what he sees:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

One of the great first paragraphs in the history of the novel – and one of the great first sentences of the 20th century – this description of the game of golf functions not just to set the context for what happens next, but also to prepare us for the heavily filtered lens through which we will have to view the action. One might quibble that the verb “hunting” requires too much interpretation here, and it’s true that Faulkner was no psychologist – Benjamin is as much a projection of stereotype & narrative needs as he is a person – but after Faulkner any novelist in English became able to use literary form to shape the narrator of a tale – one might read this as a colonization of the techniques of dramatic monolog (and which might explain the steady decline of that genre throughout the 20th century). From Faulkner to Alice Walker, David Markson & Carole Maso is a very short leap indeed.

Lionel Essrog, however, is not stream of consciousness, but rather the first-person memoir mode of so much American detective fiction. The protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Broooklyn has Tourette’s syndrome, a tic disorder, one that in Essrog’s case shows more signs of palilalia and echolalia than the more infamous coprolalia – chronic obsessive swearing – that is often associated with the disorder. It’s a condition that stigmatizes the protagonist, but more importantly it enables the author Lethem to work with multiple layers, shifting between the hyperliterate narrator – other characters complain about his bookishness – and the touchy, ticky first person EatMeBailey character who is apt to punctuate even the simplest statement with inappropriate riffs:

“You shouldn’t make fun of – Lyrical Eggdog! Logical Assnog! – you shouldn’t make fun of me, Julia.”

Freakshow, as Essrog is called by most of his closest associates throughout the book, is one of a quartet of misfits recruited literally out of an orphanage by a Fagin-like character, Frank Minna, who is a penny-ante hood who does errands for geriatric made guys not so terribly different, say, from Uncle Junior on The Sopranos. Minna is killed in the book’s opening scene & what ensues is your classic whodunit, as told through Tourette’s & involving not only a rich portrait of life in Brooklyn, but curiously involving the inner workings of a Yorkville Zendo.

Lethem – who once worked at Pegasus Books in Berkeley back when its manager was Steve Benson – has a tremendous ear for language, spoken, written or ticked. One of the baddies here, a mammoth murderer, is labeled for his snack preferences the Kumquat Sasquatch, a phrase I’ve been rolling around in my head & mouth for a week now. What makes the novel work is just how well Lethem negotiates the multiple realms of narrator & actor in this drama, a distinction that is going to be a considerable challenge for Edward Norton’s screenplay for the forthcoming film adaptation. Unlike Faulkner, Lethem has the advantage of living in a time when the works of Oliver Sacks have demystified many neurological phenomena & Lethem actually thanks Sacks in a list of credits in the back of the book. Thus, to a degree unmatched elsewhere that I can think of, the outside of Lionel Essrog, the Human Freakshow, is radically unlike the person beneath.

Motherless Brooklyn was named “book of the year” by Esquire, received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Macallan Gold Dagger for crime fiction and the Salon Book Award, only one of which seems a likely candidate for a genre work. The book transformed Lethem’s career. He won a Macarthur last year & is Bob Dylan’s interviewer in the current issue of Rolling Stone. Uncharacteristically, he actually deserves all of these good things. If Motherless Brooklyn isn’t the best novel I’ve read in the past five years, it certainly is up there with the best of Joe Torra or DeLillo’s Underworld.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

 

When I reviewed that anonymous collection of poetry on Tuesday of last week, I knew of course that Larry Fagin had a hand in the project, although I didn’t realize that the collection was to be considered Sal Mimeo #6. Larry wrote, sounding a little peeved, wanting to push the question of anonymity further:

I don't care if people know it's me and Sal (my return address is on all the envelopes) even though that knowledge provides them (and you) with yet another scrim, i.e. it's my taste, my sensibility, and maybe I did write all the poems. But what puzzles me, aside from your insistence on tracking and exposing the author / personality context, is your resistance to looking at the poem itself, without immediately contextualizing it. Of course, context is always in the foreground, no matter how we set or re-set our response dials. But, as Curtis says, "Remove that context, and Ron seems out to sea, wondering how to 'read' the poem." In an effort to study one's own case as reader-critic, to review one's lifelong habits, why not study a poem ab ovo, without a predetermined (in most instances) mindset, and only after that, if you must, bring on all the cultural-socio-political-personal baggage? The whole point is to entertain the complexity of the mind, without falling back on predictable habits of judgment. Judgment has been my interest all along, and anonymity / identity is only one aspect of it. As a child of the 1950s, I hated the New Critics (their taste in contemporary poetry above all) and, only recently, have re-read Cleanth Brooks. But there you go, more identity…. I think all the points you make about context are valid. I only wish you could see the nature of their limitations.

My immediate reaction to this is that one can’t remove context without getting into enormous trouble of the sort that Oliver Sacks likes to write about in books with titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Or, to turn to an example Wittgenstein used on occasion, there’s a survival value in understanding – instantly – the difference between a wolf & a dog.

What I think Larry is after here is an attempt to read without expectation, to let the text control the reception without recourse to extraneous inferences, as if somehow their “filling in” blank spaces were not integral to the process of reading itself. I think that the mind does this almost automatically & almost instantly upon the confrontation of any text whatsoever – the last time we read without such expectations is, in fact, before we have learned to read at all, when we are hearing stories for the first time from our parents, when we might not yet realize that Babar is a recurring character, long before we note the comingled history of his landscape with the misadventures of French colonialism.

I don’t think you can divorce the New Critics’ call for the elimination of such outside information from their own aesthetic motivations – their taste in contemporary poetry, which ran to the fugitives & the Boston Brahmins & to the meditative tradition within the history of British letters, led them not to any desire to free the text of such outside considerations, but rather instead to hide them. This enabled them to associate themselves with modernist criticism of the visual arts, notably Clement Greenberg, while avoiding any confrontation with the fact that they were propagating a pre-modernist, if not overtly anti-modernist aesthetic in poetry. It also enabled the New Critics to parrot “scientific objectivity,” then much in vogue throughout all disciplines, in order to argue that they were especially qualified readers – this was an essential component of an overall campaign to literally take over English departments throughout the U.S., which they very successfully accomplished between the late 1930s & the period right after the Second World War.

At the same time, close reading is an inherently powerful & valuable practice. It can be employed to good effect regardless of what your aesthetic commitments might be. But at the same time, it also entails – at least if it is used in conjunction with methodologies derived from contemporary linguistics, such as the use of framing schemata & processes like cognitive blending – the incorporation of “externalities.”

This incorporation of outside data occurs even at the most micro levels, and a good name for the process is ”reading.” For example, when you’re absorbing a text such as this one, most people don’t see all of each & every word as their eyes scan the page or screen. Instead, the eye proceeds far enough into the word from its “entrance” at the left for the mind to decide what the remainder of the word is apt to be, at which point it jumps to the next word. Reading in this sense is far from being a continuous or unimpeded – or unaided – process. Older readers, with larger vocabularies, will have more data points in their memories as to what possible words in this context are apt to be, and therefore will have an easier time making their way through the thicket of printed language. But even for experienced readers, if we suddenly come to a string of words that seems discordant – colorless green ideas sleep furiously – the disruption is palpable. That language appears to have no purpose in this text, even though it is grammatical and, in this case, has a significant history within both linguistics & American poetry.

What occurs at the micro level does so also for every text. Fagin’s anonymous anthology doesn’t eliminate this realm, but merely occludes it. The process actually foregrounds questions of context & authorship, rather than the opposite. A better test might be to read a text that doesn’t set up this little mystery, but which operates outside of what Fagin likes to call judgment, which is really the reader’s positionality with regards to whatever the context might be. Here is an example:

My girlfriend sings in the kitchen, she has given me
a grasshopper in a cola bottle
it chews on stalks and gazes with wonder
at the constellation in my eyes. So
I became a grasshopper god, I think
and put the bottle down

My girlfriend has no family, she sings
from the bottom of her loneliness
and lies in the garden in the summer
while I stand with my eyes turned to the sky
and think that everything is good

There are times when we love each other so much
that somebody has to drive us out
of their thoughts

This is a poem by Lars Skinnebach, a Danish-born poet now living in Norway. I took it from The Other Side of Landscape: An Anthology of Contemporary Nordic Poetry edited by Anni Sumari & Nicolaj Stockholm, which contains the work of 17 poets born in the 1960s & ‘70s from five Nordic nations: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland & Iceland. This is an interesting, even exciting book, but perhaps largely because I know so very little about its context. My direct experience of these countries is two days spent in Helsinki in 1989. I know some Nordic poets who write & publish in English, but otherwise my knowledge of the poetry of these nations can be reduced to the work of Inger Christensen, the Danish poet who has both used Fibonacci series to organize works & written a booklength poem entitled Alfabet, but who is older than the poets included here.

What Lars Skinnebach knows or thinks about American poetry I have no clue. Nor do I have any idea, really, what fault lines might apply to the Nordic context – do they have their own School of Quietude, their own post-avant tendency? Where would these poets then fit? Also, does it even matter that Skinnebach is a native Dane or writes now from Norway? To say that I’m clueless here is almost to overstate what I know.

The first line of this poem immediately drew me into it. I like the optimistic tone & domestic scene figured by the first phrase and I like also the idea that the line keeps going. I’m already getting a sense of the poem’s form – my eye has already noted the difference in line length between the first line & the others, & noted that the stanzas are of differing lengths. The specificity of the image in the second line deepens my attraction to the poem as does the absence of a capital letter at the lefthand margin. I don’t know if I’ve ever read about a grasshopper in a cola bottle before, tho I’ve seen them in enough improvised containers during my life to be able to believe the image completely.

The third line begins what might be a new sentence, although there is no opening punctuation of a capital letter nor any terminal punctuation at the end of the second line – this seems completely consistent with the informal, domestic nature of the poem to this moment. The first half of the line offers another concrete image, building on the grasshopper theme. The second half of this line, tho, begins to be a problem: gazes with wonder is an anthropomorphic projection as well as a cliché. Both aspects make the phrase feel far less specific than the material that preceded it. So here I feel as tho something has been blunted. This sense of vagueness continues in the fourth line with the constellation in my eye, an image that brings to my mind the “galaxy” in a cat’s pendant of the film Men in Black. This is my first “importation” into the poem of anything outside it, unless I think about the lack of capital letters at the lefthand margin & the role of such punctuation in the history of verse. But literally I didn’t think about that until I typed up this previous sentence (at which point, frankly, I had now read the poem several times). I find it interesting or intriguing that what occasions these importations is the weakness of imagery itself. Had the poet not fallen back on clichés, would I have gone searching “elsewhere” for ways to shore up the language?

Still, I haven’t given up on the poem yet. The promise of the first two lines may have been challenged but it hasn’t been broken. Again the fourth line ends with a word that a more conservative poet might have dropped to the next line. The fifth line’s primary phrase, I became a grasshopper god, doesn’t do a lot for me, or to me. It sounds vaguely surrealist but in a lighthearted way – it reminds me of poetry I’ve read before, say in a journal like Exquisite Corpse or just possibly by the likes of Anselm Hollo, a poet whose I work I always enjoy. A second-layer thought occurs that Anselm Hollo is himself Finnish & I wonder if any of the poets in this anthology know his work. Could Lars Skinnebach be influenced by Hollo?¹ The last line in the first stanza completes the physical description of action & serves to “tie up” loose ends in the stanza. It’s not terribly ambitious as a line, but it doesn’t jar my sensibilities in any way. [It’s not until a few more readings of this poem that I think to myself that this line might have been necessary primarily to make it run 14 lines. But even recognizing it as a sonnet, recognizing the lurking shadow of the sonnet as a form, would be an importation.]

The first phrase in the second stanza throws me – there is nothing in the first stanza to prepare me for it, unless the figure of the girlfriend itself is thought of in such terms. If the first phrase of the first stanza drew me in with its optimism, this one – which feels more parallel to the previous one than it really is, grammatically – almost breaks my heart. Again the line continues beyond the first phrase and again we greet the figure of singing. But now, in the next line, it is the girlfriend who is being cast parallel to the grasshopper of the first stanza. It sits in its cola bottle, she sings from the bottom of her loneliness. There is a certain creepiness in the comparison here – this guy is equating his girlfriend with an insect – that might be overbearing if there were not a tenderness of tone here as well.

The stanza turns at this point on the word and, a conjunction that has a precedent in the first stanza as well. Here it proves to be far more crucial, since what is now being set up is this larger image of the girl in the garden & the narrator turned with his “eyes turned to the sky,” a tableaux so overdone in its mock profundity that the deliberateness of the humor is tangible. It’s quite a comic scene, actually, but part of the comedy comes from knowing that the assurance that everything is good is patently false.

The third stanza is much more problematic for me. First, it makes us recognize that the first two stanzas function much like the first two components in any syllogism: If X & if Y. The third stanza is the Then Z. Except that it is much more vague than the material that came immediately before it and that the image in the last two lines is again in that tone I think of as Surrealist Lite or Exquisite Corpse-like. It’s intended to make the implications of the first two stanzas feel both intense & likeable, which I suppose beats unlikeable but doesn’t feel terribly ambitious to me. Again, I think of the requirement of 14 lines and wonder if the poem might not be better if it had ended at the conclusion of the second stanza.

I have no way of knowing how accurate the translation might be, so I’m treating it here as tho it were a cipher. At least nothing in the poem has that “this is not in its first language” feel, which is the death blow of bad translations.

Overall, the poem isn’t great, isn’t terrible. It tries some things that are interesting, but not all of them are equally successful. So it has a mixed feel to me. Nothing in the poem makes me dislike it, and yet nothing compels me to read every other Skinnebach poem here & find what else may be available in English. If that first line hadn’t popped out at me when I was thumbing through this anthology looking for an example of “work without context,” I probably would have finished reading & never thought to have written about it here. I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell you who Lars Skinnebach is.

This is the point where, Tuesday a week ago, I tried what I called my magic tricks. I can imagine reading this poem as tho it were a piece by Anselm Hollo, but I could just as easily imagine reading it as tho it were a poem by Dean Young, a far more conservative & derivative writer. Or I could imagine it as a sluggish example of the NY School, gen 7 or whatever. I don’t think anyone will have trouble acknowledging it as a work by a male heterosexual or, for that matter, as a poem of this cusp between the two millennia – it’s very much a work of our time, tho it might be interesting to see at what moment that time will have passed, at what moment this poem will suddenly look as “quaint,” say, as the Sherwood Anderson chants I wrote about not quite a month ago.

Does invoking such names, playing my “magic tricks,” change the text in any fashion? Not really. Does it change my reading? Not much in this instance, tho that may be because of the inherent weakness of the poem. There is a good piece on the psychology of expertise in the current issue of Scientific American, tho, which may explain why some readers invariably invoke such information while others do not. This is something called, literally, chunk theory. The difference between experts in many fields, including music, math & chess, and us mere mortals is not that experts are any smarter or can remember more, but rather that they have organized whatever it is they’re experts in into larger chunks. Whereas in chess I can think through the next move or two in any given chess game, I have to do so by thinking through the possibilities of each piece on the board in its current (and potentially future) position – a lot of different things, especially once we’re past the immediate opening of the game. A chess grandmaster will see the same combination of pieces, tho, as if it were a single formation or two that she or he has probably seen before. They can therefore think out many more future moves because these now seem much more predictable. It’s not unlike the trick of memorizing phone numbers as a predictable sequence of three numbers – area code, prefix & suffix – rather than as a scramble of ten different numbers, each of which can be anywhere from 0 to 9, which is far harder.

More experienced readers, my hunch is, look at a text on a page rather like the chess masters. Even before they recognize a word, they visually absorb stanzaic patterns & structures & associate this with what they already know about the history of poetry. A work is perceived as having visible kinship to a Creeley or Zukofsky or to a Carolyn Kizer or David Ignatow, whomever, before even the first word of the title is interiorized through actual reading. It’s the same process we have of recognizing words individually, simply carried out on a different level. What Fagin calls “all the cultural-socio-political-personal baggage” is, in fact, just a second tier of literacy, and a not terribly exceptional tier at that.

Now it’s possible that a reader can import material that is truly irrelevant to a given text – there are incompetent readers. But a much larger problem in our society is that of inexperienced readers, particularly in MFA programs. The problem that Fagin should be addressing is not how to take such information out of a text, but rather how to contextualize works so that these relationships are even more perceptible. That’s where an exceptional literary journal – whether Jacket or Conjunctions or Shiny or Combo or Sulfur or How2 – excels.

 

¹ Later, looking to see who the translator might be – it’s Barbara Haveland – I see that Anselm Hollo has translated some of the Finnish poets in this anthology. Hardly “evidence” one way or another, but a sign at least of the compactness of these literary communities.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

 

Julia’s Wild

Come shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come shadow shadow, come and take this up,
Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come, come shadow, and take this shadow up,
Come, come and shadow, take this shadow up,
Come, up, come shadow and take this shadow,
And up, come, take shadow, come this shadow,
And up, come, come shadow, take this shadow,
And come shadow, come up, take this shadow,
Come up, come shadow this, and take shadow,
Up, shadow this, come and take shadow, come
Shadow this, take and come up shadow, come
Take and come, shadow, come up, shadow this,
Up, come and take shadow, come this shadow,
Come up, take shadow, and come this shadow,
Come and take shadow, come up this shadow,
Shadow, shadow come, come and take this up,
Come, shadow, take, and come this shadow, up,
Come shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow up.

One of just two poems in the new Zukofsky Selected Poems not to have appeared before in any collection of his poetry, “Julia’s Wild” is the closest the poet came to a pure poetics of the signifier, the same line taken from Act IV, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona turned 19 different ways over a space of 20 lines.¹ It’s worth noting the full sentence from which Cid Corman first took this quotation & fed it to Zukofsky:

Come, shadow, come and take this shadow up,
For 'tis thy rival.

Julia, Proteus’ betrothed, has, unbeknownst to him, followed her fiancé disguised as a young man only to discover him chasing after Sylvia, his best friend Valentine’s love. In this scene, Julia, has just exchanged a ring Proteus gave her – the same one she earlier gave to him before he set out from Verona – as a token to Sylvia in return for a picture. In the line as originally written, Julia directs the first shadow at herself – she is both disguised & here quite deflated at her lover’s inconstancy – the second at the portrait.

This is not the only moment in Verona, where the Shakespearean formula that Zukofsky finds everywhere in the bard’s labors, love is to reason as eyes are to the mind, suggests a clear downside. Later in the play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, Proteus will in fact attempt to force himself upon the unwilling Sylvia, only to be stopped by Valentine. Yet when Proteus apologizes to Valentine, it is Valentine who willingly gives his lover over to his friend:

that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee

This is perhaps the strangest end to a rape scene in all of English literature. And it is interrupted solely by the cry of the disguised Julia, who now gives Proteus the ring that he had exchanged with her before departing Verona. The instant the deceit is undone & Julia revealed, Proteus’ desire shifts course:

Inconstancy falls-off, ere it begins:
What is in Silvia's face, but I may spy
More fresh in Julia's, with a constant eye?

At this moment, all treachery is forgotten, as though it had never happened. Valentine rebukes Thurio’s own attempt to woo Julia, the duke forgives Valentine &, in turn, lifts the banishment on his now suddenly reformed gang of outlaws.

The corollary of Zukofsky’s formula, it would seem, must be out of sight, out of mind. It’s ultimately acceptable for Proteus to rape his friend’s beloved so long as both friend & his own betrothed are out of view. Sylvia may protest Proteus’ initial assault, but she’s silent when Valentine bequeaths her back to Proteus. Seeing the offer transforms the act from the theft of her chastity to its mere exchange. It is Julia the unseen who is forced to protest – she’s not taken into account because she is in disguise. If, in fact, she were not there, it’s not clear what would then ensue. But, once revealed, the shift from this sex-as-chattel to Julia’s declaration that “I have my wish forever” takes less than 40 lines. All exeunt in the direction of a double wedding.

So, conceding for the sake of argument that Zukofsky may be correct about the centrality of sight in the work of Shakespeare, what precisely is the value of his formula, Love is to reason as are eyes to the mind? It’s the unvoiced question at the bottom of Bottom. And it’s not clear ultimately what Zukofsky’s answer would be.

 

¹ The first & 19th lines are identical.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

 

The University of Alabama is offering, via Charles Bernstein’s blog (& just until the end of this month) a 30 percent discount on two of the most recent publications from the Modern & Contemporary Poetry Series: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work and her newly republished The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. Any new publication by DuPlessis is a big deal, deservedly so, and while I haven’t gotten my own copies of this perfectly matched pair of critical books yet, just thinking about them sent me back to the title work in Blue Studios, an essay that has been up at the Electronic Poetry Center for some time. It’s one of those essays that makes you thrilled just to be living in the same time as such great work, that you can read it & absorb it & let it feed into your own processes as a poet. That’s something that only the very best poetry & critical writing can do – and both genres can achieve this -- & once you’ve connected with a text like this, you know it’s something you’ll return to again & again as a touchstone of what is possible. I feel this way about very few critical texts – Spring & All, Proprioception, Writing Degree Zero – so any addition to this list is a major event. Blue Studio: Gender Arcades – I feel a need to italicize this, even tho I’m referring here to the title essay rather than the whole book (which I have yet to read) – is the only text on my personal list of such critical works written in this century.

The poet Barbara Cole has asked DuPlessis a question whose exact wording we never quite get to see, but must have been something like What about all this feminism? or, perhaps worded at greater length along the lines of You’re a poet long aligned & publicly associated with feminism in the U.S. & yet your own writing is a far cry from the sort of poetry that is characteristically identified as “feminist,” such as that of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Judy Grahn or Pat Parker. What is that about for you? How does it work? Or does it? However it was originally posed, it’s a compelling question. I recall Kathleen Fraser, who founded HOW(ever), now the e-journal How2, with the assistance of DuPlessis, Bev Dahlen & the late Frances Jaffer, once telling me that the reception the newsletter got was exactly the opposite of what she had anticipated, that she had thought it ought to be greeted enthusiastically by the likes of Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, only to be surprised at their silence, especially when compared with the extremely positive reaction the newsletter got from male post-avants, presumably the very poets who would be most threatened at this intervention into their traditionally male enclave (think, say, of the sexual politics of Charles Olson, or of the New American Poetry in general). And I recall how deeply suspicious of the word “feminism” so many of the women writers associated with language poetry have always been, perhaps precisely because of that term’s association with instrumentalist versions of the School of Quietude & its clarion call for conformity at all cost.¹ So to find DuPlessis tackling this issue directly is heady stuff.

DuPlessis’ response is multiple, organized as the subtitle suggests into movements or arcades, a term I suspect she chose less for the Walter Benjamin allusions (tho never so terribly far from the surface) as for the non-hierarchic experience of walking, literally, through a space with many alternatives.² There is, tho DuPlessis doesn’t say this at first, but rather arrives at it quite late in the essay’s progress, a distinction to be made between a feminism of production (think Susan Griffin) & one of reception (think Carla Harryman), plus, along the way, many, many different definitions within these two broad arcs of possible ways to constitute a feminist poet:

Feminist poet = one who talks a lot about gender and sexuality in her/his work. No, wait-that would be lots of poets--Olson, Williams. So try-a poet who marks the constructedness of gender and sexuality in her/his work, takes gender as an ideology about male- and femaleness and wants to investigate, to critique, not simply to benefit.

Feminist poet = woman poet

Feminist poet = woman poet consumed (studied, read, appreciated) under the regime of or in the economy of feminist perspectives, whether or not she is a feminist. One might want a different term for this-see the note on "feminist reception" below.

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who has certain themes in her work, themes (tautologically?) agreed upon as feminist. These themes - Alicia Ostriker names a number: self-division, anger, investigation of myth, assertion of the female body-are very palpable, valuable ways of organizing poetic texts, but have the flaws of their formulizable virtues: of being reductive or making the poem one-dimensional.

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who writes poems about the liberation of women

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who resists stereotypes of women-in her life? in her work? both?

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who resists stereotypes of women and men-again-where?

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who comments on gender issues in her critical work, who thinks about gender in the cultural field

Feminist poet = woman poet whose work is selectively seen, certain materials heavily valorized because of the existence of feminist criticism and its paradigms.

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who takes certain themes of "difference" involving women's experiences -menarche, menstruation, childbirth, kid life, sexisms experienced, rape, incest - as central subject matter (some of these topics are not exclusive to women)

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who tells the truth about her life as a woman. And with that verbal emphasis on truth and the unmediated communication of experience, one also might want to investigate the word "tells" or representation. As Margaret Homans so presciently said about Rukeyser's rousing manifesto "No more masks!": "Lines like Rukeyser's and the expressions of faith derived from them are always exhortatory, never descriptive, because to speak without a mask is an impossibility, for men and for women…." (Women Writers and Poetic Identity, 1980, 40)

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who used to be called a poetess

Feminist poet = [woman] poet in a certain anthology (like No More Masks!)

Feminist poet = poet who destabilizes the normative terms of gender/sexuality and makes some kind of critique of those issues in her/his poems. This is closing in on the word "queer" as synonym for "feminist"

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who refuses (self-censors) certain themes or solutions, certain images or insights because they do not explore or lead, in her view, to the liberation of women

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who calls explicit attention to the relative powerlessness of women and the relative power of men-or who exaggerates this positionality into female powerlessness, male power in all cases.

Feminist poet = [woman] poet historically coming to her production in some relation to the liberation of women, and to the cultural critique of female exclusions made by feminism in general

Feminist poet = [woman] poet writing something "politically involved…multi-gendered, …delicious to talk about, unpredictable" (to cite the Belladonna formulation from Rachel Levitsky)

Feminist poet = [woman] poet affronting the complexities of sexuality, eroticism, desire, odi et amo, frank and startling, decorum breaking (like Dodie Bellamy or Leslie Scalapino)

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who investigates language, narrative, genre and representation in its ways of constructing gender and gender roles. This is Kathleen Fraser's argument: "I recognized a structural order of fragmentation and resistance" that was anti-patriarchal; her argument for the crucial intervention of formally innovative and investigative poetry into a feminist field in Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, 2000)

Feminist poet = a person who is a feminist, and who also writes poetry

Feminist poet = angry woman, writing poetry

Feminist poet = ironic woman, writing poetry

Feminist poet = [woman] poet who is "disobedient" (Alice Notley's term for herself); transgressive (like Carla Harryman); "resistant" (my term about myself); imbuing knowing with its investigative situatedness (like Lyn Hejinian's "La Faustienne") in full knowledge of gender normativities

Feminist poet = a poet radically skeptical about gender ideas and arrangements in a culture

Feminist poet = a poet who knows what she thinks about gender ideas and arrangements in a culture and does not particularly change her mind

Feminist poet = a poet who sometimes shows herself to be ironic and skeptical about gender and sexual arrangements, but other times is not, or not overtly

Feminist poet = a woman protesting the place of woman in culture and society (in her poetry? not in her poetry? I didn't say)

Feminist poet = one who finds herself "mounting an enormous struggle" within culture, including poetry, because of its deeply constitutive gender ideas

Note that not all of these definitions require the poet to be female. What is actually oddest, this morning, about excerpting this little list is that it really doesn’t do any just either to the breadth of feminist possibilities that DuPlessis entertains over the course of the entire work – this is, after all, from a single arcade in a work that contains 25 such arcades. It’s not so much that there are other lists to added to this one as it is that entering the question over & over from all of these different angles – each arcade is a very distinct intervention – many of the categories above split & divide & all but explode into many further possible configurations.

From my perspective, what is so fascinating about all this is just how deeply DuPlessis’ critique resonates with my own sense of a literary/political/critical project, which is not one I would necessarily call feminist, perhaps save as an adjunct to (or dimension of) a more broadly social perspective. And this, at least in part, is why I think this essay is especially important for male poets to read & think through seriously. Particularly if you think there is a political dimension to what you are doing, I think guys will find it almost spooky just how completely on target DuPlessis’ own takes are, repeatedly throughout this piece, not just simply on or about gender, but across the board. Case in point (from the 22nd page of the 23-page PDF version also available on EPC):

There is no doubt that poly-interruptibility and a sense of multiple vectors, the collaging of these, the play with "sequence of disclosure" and rhythms of understanding mark my work in both poetry and the essay. I have also made a serious gender critique of the "lyric tradition" and want to encircle, rupture, torque, destabilize lyric poetry as such. But, carefully (and with a little help from my friends - Hank Lazer and Nathaniel Mackey), I do not reject "lyricism" or melody as one effect built among many in a poem (sound, segmentivities, charms – though I do emphatically reject the charming, the decorative, the pretty. I have a principled resistance to "beauty" as a marker of verse, a serious claim of dissent and resistance, but my creolizations are not ignorant of beauty. Nor do I reject syntax as one means of directing attention, the "sequence of disclosure" - in George Oppen's wonderful phrase (Sagetrieb 3, 3 [Winter 1984], 26). I am fascinated by the way syntax intersects with and interacts with any poetic line or unit of segmentivity. I use sentence and fragment, argument and disjunction, putting rapture next to rupture, so to speak. I want the passion, sense of the ethics of writing synthesized with discursive variability, and linguistic/ textual creolization.

Gender is not the only reason one might want to encircle, rupture, torque, destabilize lyric poetry as such, but it certainly is one – class almost as obviously is another. There are a wide range of subject positions that might equally share DuPlessis’ principled resistance to “beauty.” A large portion – tho not all – of the spectrum that is the post-avant is aware of inhabiting these positions & it directly impacts the verse that rises from this juxtaposition. A sliver – tho not all – of the spectrum that is the School of Quietude does likewise. A writer who is committed to conformism as the hallmark of verse, but who is also an out-front feminist, is invariably someone living large in their personal contradictions. That might make their work more interesting, but also it might not. A lot depends on who & how well & in what ways, etc.

So there is no question that Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Blue Studios is a major act of feminist literary theory, but it is more than that also. It has insights & lessons that go beyond gender, even beyond class. My hope is that it gets read by more than the already convinced.

 

¹ Indeed, I have sometimes wondered if DuPlessis herself might have become a language poet had she been, say, in San Francisco during the early-to-mid 1970s rather than France. Her own poetics, with its strong critical dimension, surely has elements in common with my own poetry, as well as with the likes of Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Steve McCaffery, Bob Perelman & Charles Bernstein. Yet when I think of DuPlessis’ associates, particularly on the masthead at HOW(ever), such as Fraser & Dahlen, they were in San Francisco & very successfully kept langpo at arm’s distance – if anything they, Leslie Scalapino & some male poets like Jerry Estrin & Aaron Shurin – all proved to be language writing’s strongest – and thereby most useful – critics. When I see these same people today sometimes referred to language poets – Estrin was the first to have that phrase show up in his obituary – it makes me realize not just the degree to which that moment of the 1970s is past, but also it’s true, absolutely, that opposition is the truest friendship.

² One might compare the experience to walking through a mall, but without a “master tenant,” which is precisely the point.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

 

I was on the plane coming back from California & trying to get a little sleep, so I of course turned to Poets & Writers, the trade journal dedicated to the concept that poetry can be as pedestrian as any other job, &, whilst thumbing thru its pages noted the little list of names that appears as a sidebar in each issue: writers who have recently died. On the list was Carol Bergé.

When I got back to Chester County, I looked on the web to see who had noted this, finding only one memorial poem on Bob Arnold’s Woodburners site. A search of the Wom-PO archives turns up nothing. According to Amazon, you can download a four-page write-up from the Gale Group Contemporary Authors biographies, but nothing else is in print. The Gale Group piece is perfunctory at best, tho it does give a list of her books, both prose and poetry & only mentions in passing her role as the editor of Center from 1970 thru 1981. It gives her home address as the Chelsea Hotel.

I met Bergé just once on a street corner in San Francisco’s Chinatown, for less than a minute. She was one of four writers – Diane Wakoski, Rochelle Owens & Barbara Moraff were the others – immortalized in LeRoi Jones’ infamous attempt at pre-feminist editing, Four Young Lady Poets, published by Totem/Corinth in 1962, quick enough after the appearance of the Allen anthology for you to realize that any one of them might have been included, might have increased The New American Poetry’s representation of women from just four (Madeline Gleason, Barbara Guest, Helen Adam, Denise Levertov) of its 44 contributors. Four Young Lady Poets was successful enough to go through at least three editions in the 1960s, literally the first announcement that the New American poetry wasn’t going to be just the Male American poetry. When it first appeared, Bergé was 34 years old.

Bergé had three books in the 1970s from Bobbs-Merrill, a trade publisher unique in that it was headquartered in Indianapolis, one from Black Sparrow, one (in 1984) from Ishmael Reed’s I.Reed. Two of the Bobbs-Merrill volumes were fiction – Bergé was one of the first true metafiction writers in the U.S. – but most of her publishers were presses with names like Weed/Flower, Membrane, Fault, Theo Press and Amalgamated Sensitivity. In the 1970s, when she was editing Center, Bergé was also doing the academic nomad routine, teaching at Goddard College, the University of Southern Mississippi, where she briefly edited the Mississippi Review, the University of New Mexico, Grand Valley State College and Wright State University. She belonged to all the usual writers organizations and served on P.E.N.’s executive committee in 1977-79. Her one NEA grant came in 1979, in the large batch that attempted to make up for all the years of excluding post-avants from earlier awards (& which caused howls of outrage from a certain school of you-know-what that likes to pretend it doesn’t exist).

Considering that the Gale Group bio lists a total of 23 books, her near total disappearance is startling. A review like this one in the New York Times from 1984 suggests that Bergé was able to garner serious attention for challenging work, but for reasons I don’t quite get she never seems to have won the sort of lasting following her writing deserves. To use CAConrad & Larry Fagin’s term, Bergé has become one of our true neglectorinos. At the very least, there would seem to be good cause for a selected poems & a selected prose.

You can find some of her writing on the net, most of it poetry. The best selection is an excerpt from The Unexpected on Karl Young’s Light & Dust website, the book having been published originally by his own Membrane Press. Three other pieces can be found in the first issue of Grist On-Line, where her work is sandwiched between Tuli Kupferberg, one of the original Fugs, and yours truly. Bob Arnold reprints one piece from The Unexpected, in a slightly different form than you’ll find on Light & Dust.

Carol Bergé would have been 78 this year.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

 

Steven May’s blog
reviewing chapbooks
is not just a good idea,
it’s also the 900th
blog linked in the roll
to the left

§

Something to try out
now that it’s in beta
is the
Poem Cube

§

Salman Rushdie
on the Nazi past
of Gunter Grass

§

Michael Graves
on postmodern design
for the physically challenged

§

On Hugh MacDiarmid

§

The lost love poems
of Ted Hughes

§

The new Nigerian poetry

§

The “best-loved English poet
of the 20th century
.”

§

One of the most original poets of his generation,
Tranter was an aesthetic foe of Murray
in the fierce poetry wars
that pitted traditional, nationalist poets
against the internationalist avant-garde
.”

§

Cock-a-doodle Dada

§

Another Nigerian poet profiled
(Akeem Lasisi)

§

Interviewing the poetry editor
of The Atlantic

§

Rebel poet
Donald Hall

§

Bengali poet
Shamsur Rahman
has died

§

Don’t label him a landscape poet:
(on that son of Pound & Blake,
Charles Wright)

§

I really was a horrible person.
An awful person

(an interview with John Kinsella)

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