Saturday, September 23, 2006

 

Hugo’s book club
pushes Chomsky
onto best seller list

§

Who needs to read?

§

Mazisi Kunene
poet laureate of
South Africa
has died

§

The “farewell” column
of Jerome Weeks
The
Dallas Morning News
wouldn’t print

§

O missed opportunities!
If Jim Behrle hadn’t spent his energy
blogging people to
”blow off” my reading in NYC
last week
(you can delete the words, Jimmy,
but Google & Technorati
caches reveal all),
he could have gone out to dinner afterwards
with Joan Houlihan & me.

§

Patricia Lockwood has this idea
we should all dress up
as lines from Wallace Stevens

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Friday, September 22, 2006

 

I’ve been reading Eileen Tabios since I came across her blog and her Meritage Press website almost four years ago – she’s just one of many poets whose work I might not have gotten to know, or would have only much later, had it not been for this new public space that weblogs collectively have created. And while I met her at a reading I gave at 21 Grand in Oakland a few years back, I’d never had the opportunity to hear her read before we appeared together at the Bubble House in Philadelphia last Tuesday. She’s a terrific reader: her poetry is strong and she brings to a reading the same questing, restless, driven imagination that one finds in her writing and the same ready wit. For the event, Tabios read entirely from “Gabriela Couple(t)s with the 21st Century,¹” one of two sequences that make up the bulk of Ménage à Trois with the 21st Century, a hard copy volume published by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed) Press of Espoo, Finland. I mention that it’s hard copy since xPress(ed) is better known for published post-avant ebooks, but has done at least some, as well, in actual print & paper, and the Gabriela sequence only in hard copy (it’s joined in the book with “Enheduanna in the 21st Century,” which is also available solo as an xPress(ed) ebook.)

Gabriela Silang, the widow of Diego Silang, continued her husband’s fight against Spanish rule of the Philippines in 1763, becoming the first female revolutionary leader there as part of the Ilokano revolt, for which she was soon captured and hung. “Gabriela” is a series of 33 poems – one for every year of Silang’s life – which engages this figure of Filipina nationalism, but hardly in the simple honorifics that characterize political poetry about heroes. Here is “Domestic,” which carries a subtitle, At Which Gabriela Would Have Been Better If A Revolution Had Not Interfered:

I am a stranger
to lace-edged aprons –

My melons
are rarely ripe –

My dining room boasts
a long mahogany table

whose silk flowers
offer the fragrance of dust –

That I have money
for perfect hems

consoles
like martyrdom –

Within this universe
I do not dominate

my sisters are
in demand

for “domestic skills”:
they are priceless

unlike I
who responds with words

when asked for
”objects” –

F.G. cautions me
against “enhancing the music”

as more would implode
my poems, trip

the “fragile balance”
between “sterility”

and “sensuality” –
In response, I grin

for I long – “I” long! –
for any manner of

a stable grid –
Let me tell you

of my nightgown:
a flannel background

of lapis lazuli
contextualizes

reproductions of
yellow bancas

green anchors
red piranhas

white fishing poles
orange oranges –

Perhaps I hold the potential
for a poem keening

for the sun
to irradiate the sky

until we all inhabit
the same room

in Walt Whitman’s
expansive ocean –

Mind you, I
once dived deeply

into a salty sea
to watch corals

crumble at my touch –
When schools of fish

dispersed, their bodies
pressed a rainbow

against the undulating
sea floor

suddenly flesh
suddenly scarred

suddenly scarred flesh
suddenly aglow

Bancas in this context aren’t benches, but the slender pontoon-balanced boats common to the Philippines. In the reading at The Bubble House, Tabios used the name Forrest Gander rather than the initials “F.G.” although she didn’t mention Silang’s complicated “domestic” history, having been adopted by a wealthy businessman who later married her &, three years after that, abandoned her, thus having been both daughter & wife to a man who obviously recognized the aspect of property in both of those relationships.

This poem, more than anything else, is about brilliance, whether the décor of clothing, the ripeness of melons, the sensuality of language or ultimately the inner glow of ocean fish. In fact, the poem turns on the description of a flannel nightgown with its ersatz image of island life. Up close real-time, fish scatter & coral crumbles, a dynamic the poem itself replicates, moving between the plainest of rhetorics and a sentence that hinges on the verb keening. Or between the flattest social romanticism of what might be read as the politically correct and the complete opacity of identifying a poet just by his initials (and knowing that a certain percentage of readers will recognize the reference from the initials alone). Like the best work, say, of Judy Grahn or Simon Ortiz, Tabios’ poem uses a lot of its energy seeming artless, which F.G. would be right to note is an especially hard thing to accomplish. At the same time, this poem divulges its own secrets, discusses its own devices, that same kind of referential/metacomment border blur we might think of as uniquely the New York School’s contribution to literary form, tho Whitman contradicted himself much earlier still.

Tabios did not read either all of “Gabriela,” nor did she read the poems in the sequence they appear in the book. With just 20 minutes allotted per reader, it made me realize yet again that the best readings are those that last at least an hour, tho the ambient noise of the bar upstairs might make that particularly challenging in a place like the Bubble House. As I head back to Chester County afterwards, what I wanted most was to hear more.

 

 

¹ That is the sequence’s title as given in the book itself. The table of contents calls it “Gabriela Silang Couple(t)s with the 21st Century.” One senses, throughout Tabios’ work, that such things are held lightly, that they might be called something else tomorrow, might even take on a different shape, become a novel or a performance piece.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

 

There is a certain aptness to reading Nicole Brossard’s 1987 novel Le Désert mauve in translation: Mauve Desert, which was recently returned to print by Coach House Books, is superbly rendered by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood. It’s a high-risk endeavor for any translator, since one key dimension of this novel is the presumption that it is itself “translated” as well as “written.” Indeed, what we have here is a Borges-like project – a tale of just 36 or so pages that we are told is Mauve Desert as written, presumably in English, by one Laure Angstelle. This is followed by a meditation on translation itself, a section called “A Book to Translate,” which in turn includes other sections on Places and Things, Characters – one is a photo essay of sorts – Scenes, and Dimensions, a further meditation on translation¹ and finally Mauve, the Horizon, as translated by Maude Laures, which reads a great deal just like the original. Here is a three-paragraph passage from the second chapter of Mauve Desert:

Here in the desert, fear is precise. Never an obstacle. Fear is real, is nothing like anguish. It is as necessary as a day of work well done. It is localized, familiar and inspires no fantasies. Here there are only wind, thorns, snakes, wolf-spiders, beasts, skeletons: the soil’s very nature.

At the Motel though, fear is diffuse. televised like a rape, a murder, a fit of insanity. It torments the mind’s gullible side, obstructs dreams, bruises the soul’s trouble.

I was fifteen and I’m talking about fear, for fear, one thinks about it only after the fact. Precise fear is beautiful. Perhaps it is possible after all to fantasize fear like a blind spot producing a craving for eternity, like a hollow imaginary moment leaving in the pit of the stomach a powerful sensation, a renewed effect of ardor.

Here is the same passage 156 pages later in Brossard’s book, as “translated” in Mauve, the Horizon:

In the desert fear is exact, well-proportioned, wears no mask. It is useful, precise, does a good job. Fear, here, is frequented like a natural history. It is exceptionally succinct, a few illustrations: beaks, fangs, stingers, forked tongue.

At the Motel though, fear frightens. On the screen as in thought, it fragments bodies, assassinates daily. Fear sniffs boredom and sends chills down the back. Fear insists, amplifies the torment of living, permutates certitude and farfetched stories in the brain.

I was 15 and I’m talking about fear still for it always takes me by surprise. But exact fear is beautiful. Every night it can be seen wandering, strong remnant of eternity in the petrified forest. Yes, exact fear kindles the plexus and plaits strange suns in the eyes.

In addition, each chapter of the twin works operates in two parts – one very factual passage concerning a crazed scientist – the Los Alamos testing ground is referenced on numerous occasions – named Longman in the original and in the photo essay, O’blongman in the “translation,” then a longer section recounting events from the perspective of Mélanie, the 15-year-old daughter of a motel owner (Kathy Kerouac!), a woman who appears to have only recently taken on a lesbian lover. Much of the “story” told in the two versions of this book consists of Mélanie sensing her mother’s heightened sexual feelings, her own half-envious/half-appalled (it is, after all, her mother) emotions, a trip to visit a close cousin with whom she may or may not be experimenting sexually, driving around the desert, especially at night, and then dancing in the motel bar with the one woman scientist she knows from Los Alamos.

Thus we have referential characters and characters who exist entirely as writing styles – we sense the presence of a translator how, precisely? In one section of the long meta-chapters that separate Mauve Desert from Mauve, the Horizon, the translator “interviews” what she concedes is the imagined author. But she does so through the persona of the woman scientist.

Of all the elements of fiction, character is the most “meta-“. Here, at moments, we have Mélanie seen through at least three layers – her self, her writer, her translator. We have key elements, even key objects, picked apart theoretically. There is a gun in the glove compartment of the car Mélanie drives and we are told, repeatedly, that it is hot or warm. Yet one gun does go off in this story, and it is not that one.

In a sense, Brossard’s Mauve Desert (as distinct from Angstelle’s, or from Laure’s translation) is a narrative onion – peel and peel until at last you get what exactly? The layers of onion are the onion.

There is one thing I ought to make clear amidst all this – Mauve Desert is also, at all points, a fascinating, even entertaining read, even just at the “he said this, she did that” level. The level of control of the writing is always completely precise, which is exactly what empowers passages like the two above, neither one of which can be truly said to be the “it” of referentiality. If Longman / O’blongman seems a little under-realized as a character, that is also his role in the narrative itself. It’s no accident that you never see a face in the photo essay that is “his” portrait.

Nor is it any accident that Nicole Brossard is the most widely translated Canadian francophone author. Mauve Desert is a classic of post-avant writing because it manages to do more things well at once than other novels would dare attempt. But if you try to get to the “there there” behind the writing, I swear you will only make yourself dizzy.

 

¹ Marcella Durand has a terrific interview with Brossard on the subject of “self-translation,” which includes a discussion of Mauve Desert, in the second issue of Double Change.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

 

You can tell that it’s an Aaron Sorkin production just by the way the camera weaves & slides throughout the entire studio, before it settles on a single speaking figure, the old signature “walk-and-talk” take that Sorkin patented during his years as the creator of West Wing, only this time without the talk or focus on a single moving individual, until you realize that what you are hearing is a comic warming up the audience of a television show – an absolute clone of Saturday Night Live, tho we learn soon enough that it’s on Fridays – that is about to go on. Quickly enough we learn the premise behind the first show of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: the show is entering its 20th season & its creative juices have been sapped – there is only skit ready for that night that anyone is enthusiastic about at all, save for the representative of the network’s “broadcast standards” department who is insisting that this is the one skit that absolutely has to be cut. When director Judd Hirsch agrees to the cut as the night’s opening bit – a parody of Bush & Rove in the Oval office – begins, he feels like crap & so “pulls a Network,” a reference to Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Oscar-winning film about newsman Howard Beale’s famed freakout – “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more” – although, in what may have been the most telling detail from the opening episode of Studio 60, tho Network is referenced several times, it’s credited always to its writer, Paddy Chayevsky, and never once its director. Hirsch breaks into the opening skit & tells the audience to change the channel, to turn off the TV, that this show will be terrible – “it’s not even good pornography” – and is allowed by the show’s line director Timothy Busfield to stay on air ranting for 53 seconds.

All of this occurs simultaneous to the celebratory welcoming dinner of Jordan McDeere (Amand Peet), who has just been hired as the president of the Entertainment Division of mythical network NBS by its president Jack Rudolph (played by Steven Weber), who in turn reports to a corporate overlord played in the opening episode by Ed Asner. McDeere isn’t supposed to begin until the following Monday, but instead she’s plunged into an immediate crisis as Rudolph rushes to the studio & fires Hirsch on the spot. Her solution: bring back the creative team that Rudolph had fired several years back and who have gone on to become famous for their collaborations as writer & director (not unlike, say, writer Sorkin and his favorite collaborator Tommy Schlamme). McDeere knows one critical secret: the director, Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, Josh on West Wing), just failed the physical for his “completion bond” on his next picture due to a positive test for cocaine. The film he and Matt Albie (Matthew [Friends] Perry) are planning to make can’t get done for at least two years as a result. There are only multiple problems: Weber hates these guys, Matt has just separated from his wife, an actress on Studio 60 who is an evangelical Christian, and Danny hasn’t told anybody, even best buddy Matt about his coke test. You can actually watch the entire episode online on its NBC site (click the link above), if you want, but you know that by the end credits, Matt & Danny are strolling onstage to ensure the cast that they are there to “rescue” them.

It’s got all the hallmarks of a Sorkin job: it’s smart, fast, layered, has a premise that enables it to employ celebs as themselves – Felicity Huffman & Three 6 Mafia on the first episode – and in cameo roles (Asner & Hirsch) – and is brilliantly written. Even in a producer’s medium like television, it all comes down to the writing – that’s always been the source of the great unevenness, say, in The Sopranos, where creator David Chase writes only a couple of episodes per season, and West Wing was doomed the minute Sorkin left after a conflict with network execs. The only difference between Studio 60 and The West Wing, which the London Guardian not long ago called “the best television series ever,” which is not as much an overstatement as it might seem, is that this is about a sketch comedy show, so, hey, lots of drama, but who cares? It’s not like they have Matthew Perry & Brad Whitford portraying UN peacekeepers in Darfur or running a black site detention center in an unnamed country in central Asia. Studio 60 may do a little to demystify the most over-exposed medium in today’s media-glut culture – they could have been running a dot com start-up after all, not so different from the ad agency that Timothy Busfield had on Thirty Something – but this seems unlikely and ultimately unnecessary. Didn’t Sorkin do this for ESPN with Sports Night?

This of course is the ultimate gotcha of network television – an absolute inability to focus on anything more substantive than Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. The disease & health care crisis that loom behind ER and Gray’s Anatomy, or the legal/social issues that get brought up in Law & Order, CSI and even Crossing Jordan are there really just as framing devices. Studio 60 is offering us a serial “dramedy” that will hinge on the ad rates for Victoria’s Secret or Budweiser. If you don’t have much time for television – and I have precious little – this feels considerably more hollow than the reality series Project Runway, even as its production costs & marshalling of creative resources is a hundred times greater. And since Sorkin is just one of seven writers actually listed for this show, you can rest assured that it won’t always live up to the flash-bang repartee that characterized Monday night’s opening episode. So unless you get into the narrative of how a young woman can function as a corporate exec – Amanda Peet in some variation of Allison Janney’s C.J. Craig role in West Wing, just younger, sexier & more comfortable with power – Studio 60 is going to feel like one hell of a lot of frosting on a very small cake.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

 

The most moving & profound work of art I see on my day in Chelsea is neither the most well crafted (that would have been Chie Fueki at the Mary Boone Gallery, Amy Myers’ graphite & soft pastels at the Mike Weiss Gallery or the Hans Richter dada retrospective at the Maya / Stendhal – its last day there, alas¹), nor the most provocative (that would be “The Message is the Medium,” the group show responding to war & terror curated by Marshall Reese at Jim Kempner Fine Art), nor that with the biggest price tag (that has to be Richard Serra’s blocks & slabs at Gagosian). Rather, by far the work that drills deepest right through my soul is an exhibition of photographs by Hai Bo at Max Protetch, especially a series of eight portraits of peasants on bicycles approaching on a road in the flat rural northern landscape of the People’s Republic. Judging by the already harvested crops & the heavier weight parkas these men are wearing – five of the eight with Mao caps as well, at least three with gloves – the photographs were taken in late autumn & the suggestion of closure that comes with this is no accident. Indeed, it’s vital to the power of the work. Each individual photograph is just under four feet tall, mounted high enough on the gallery wall that you are almost eye to eye with each subject. The one on the far right looks to his right, as if to the other bicyclists – it’s a brilliant & unifying juxtaposition.

Framed as high art in one of the literally hundreds of galleries that dot the Chelsea between 10th avenue and the Hudson River in what must be the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in America, these eight men – the title of the work is The Northern: A Man is Riding a Bicycle, No. 1-8, can be interpreted many different ways, including what I take to be the obvious symbolic one for this audience, that China is riding out of the past up to greet us, that these men are literally pedaling into their and our future. Even more than the allergic reaction to modernity we see in the various fundamentalisms – Islam’s variant isn’t so far from Christianity’s in this regard – the emergence of China will be the great story of this century. The past out of which these men ride is every bit as doomed (I want to hear to the dustbins of history) as is affordable housing amid the convoluted gallery scene of the west side of Manhattan (where, over tofu fajitas at the Empire Diner for lunch, I heard someone moan that you couldn’t rent a two-bedroom apartment in the area for under $5,000 a month any more). More than any other show that I saw this past weekend – and I trudged through dozens until my brain locked up & my feet screamed for relief from hard gallery floors – Hai Bo seems to have his finger exactly on where we are at this moment in the evolution of world history & captures it succinctly. It’s political without being directly political, aesthetic without being excessively formal, the series is both witty & graceful & terribly sad all at once. Family of Man, meet Late Capital.

The show is a telling reminder that what controls reception of the work of art above all else is context – not craft, not brains nor skills nor the ability to provoke, as such, save insofar as these aid in the manipulation of context, which in this post-conceptual era (or not so post-conceptual over at “The Message is the Medium” show), is every bit as much a material of art as any canvas, pigment or sculptural gunk.

Two other shows this same weekend make clear just why Hai Bo’s photographs are so powerful. One is “Brooklyn Abroad,” another series of photographs by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher that just opened at the Sonnabend, while the other is Reese’s show at the Kempner. The Robbins-Becher show contains two series of photographs, one of various Chabad Houses around the world. Chabad, the organization of the Lubavitch branch of Hasidism, the other of Hasids living in Postville, Iowa, a quaint Iowa farm town that is home to the largest per capita rabbi population in the world, thanks to the presence there of a major kosher meat packing plant. The Chabad Houses are called “770s,” after the last home of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994), located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. All of these other Chabad Houses replicate the architecture of the original site, with its three-peaked roof and brick exterior. At first glance, these very large photographs look like a PhotoShop stunt, until you realize that the replicas are never completely exact. But what really jumps out is how much each sets itself aside from whatever the other local features of the landscape might be – thus for example the five-story São Paulo building is sandwiched between two high-rise apartment buildings, virtually the only building in the vicinity that doesn’t lockstep into the late-modernist urbanism of that city. In the Postville series, we see Hasids mowing lawns, working on tractors and playing baseball. The only thing missing from that series is the presence of Kevin Costner! Robbins & Becher are savvy enough postmodern artists to build in the requisite formalism to create their two series – in this sense, they’re no different from Hai Bo. But there is a sentimentalism about both of these sequences that combines with the gigantic and always bright-to-the-max color photography that yields a mock heroism as purely kitsch as any balloon puppy ever envisioned by Jeff Koons. Unlike Koons, however, I think they don’t have much control over their own uses of irony here, or maybe don’t even see it themselves. Family of Man, meet the Lifetime Channel.

Context works overtime at the “Message is the Medium” show, where the first thing that takes your breath away is, just to your right as you walk in the door, is a variant of the 1970 “WAR IS OVER / IF YOU WANT IT” poster/Christmas card of John Lennon & Yoko Ono. On the front desk is a huge bowl of political buttons, each reading “Imagine Peace.” But what you hear, omnipresent on the first floor of the Kempner, is the droning voice of George Walker Bush himself, around the corner broadcasting from a DVD that plays some of his semi-coherent babble about terrorism while on a TV monitor you see an ice sculpture of the word DEMOCRACY melting in some time-lapse process, a piece produced by show curator Marshall Reese with his partner Nora Ligorano (they have been producing work as Ligorano/Reese for some 20 years now). Immediately across the small room from the meltdown of democracy, so to speak, is a large (2000 piece) jigsaw puzzle by Christoph Draeger that shows a detail of TWA 800, the 1996 Long Island air disaster that has long been a point of contention for the conspiracy minded, some of whom think it was brought down by a ground-to-air missile, whether launched by al-Qaeda or friendly fire. In the main room, past the Marlene McCarty flag with stars only visible for blue states (a total of 19, and, as best I can tell, she has the right stars visible) and a couple of giant Carolee Schneeman prints whose relevance to the show overall escaped me, tho I was happy to see them there – they were the least predictable items in the exhibition – is another even larger Draeger jigsaw puzzle, this time of the oilfields of Kuwait burning in 1991. Upstairs, you can see a DVD of Yoko Ono leading the audience at the Tate in a flashlight salute that she declares means I Love You, followed then by the same at a giant concert in a stadium in Tokyo. Downstairs, Constantin Boym has a series of small sculptures, the size of the little memorial tchotchkes you get in souvenir gift shops, only this time made of cast bonded nickel. Included are the twin towers of the World Trade Center, with the holes made by the airplanes, the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Princess Di’s auto wreck in Paris, the little wood frame house in Los Alamos that we’ve each seen vaporized by a 1950s A-bomb test hundreds of times, a nuclear power plant that I presume to be Chernobyl, etc.

If the immediate context for the show is the present Iraq war and a sense of the horror that attaches itself to George Bush’s war on democracy, the reality that is offered up by the show is that this has been going on over & over & over now for nearly 40 years. This is a vision of the world as viewed by Noam Chomsky on his most dour day, and I think it has something of the opposite effect of the Hai Bo exhibit, in that I think it drains the viewer of any possible response. So you see a Hans Haacke C-print on aluminum of all the lights on Times Square, with one image of a presumed Abu Ghraib prisoner, only with a flag instead of a canvas sack covering his head, as bright as an ad for Coke. Far from invoking the horror of that prison or of the U.S. approach to prisoners in general, whether the 14,000 war prisoners we’re holding in Iraq or the 2 million we have here at home in our jails and corrections facilities (one of which is smack in the middle of Chelsea on 20th Street), my reaction to too many of these images is numbness. I actually agree with many, if not all, of these artists, I share their anger & despair, but nothing in the show offered me any insight as to what to think or do next.

Not so Hai Bo. Precisely because he’s not dealing with the conflict of cultures at their most obvious pain points, his images offer up much more to think about, whether present in the images directly – just think of the role of the bicycle in the history of transportation, especially at a time with an author like Mike Davis is current penning a history of the car bomb, “the poor man’s nuclear weapon.” Think of the history of agriculture, of Communism (big and little C), of the Chinese regulation of society – Mao caps in 2006! – and of the role of images in contemporary life. The very lyricism of Hai Bo’s photography calls up its consciously conflicted function as an art object, and one senses a level of control over this that is unmatched anywhere in the Kempner show – with the notable exceptions of Ono & perhaps Schneeman, they’re all Adorno-ites there, confirmed in their belief that the lyric post 9.11 is barbaric – and utterly beyond Robbins & Becher altogether. Hai Bo’s show will be up through the remainder of the month. I seriously recommend that you take a look.

 

¹ And how ironic that an old Dadaist might prove the best craftsperson, or at the very least one of the best thereof. Those old aesthetic values turn out to have been hard to overthrow.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

 


photo by Ben Friedlander

When Lyn Hejinian’s book My Life first was published by Burning Deck in 1980, I couldn’t read it for a year. Every time I opened it, I found myself staring at the new sentence in as pure a form as I had seen outside of my own Ketjak, published two years earlier by This Press, but written four years before that back when This Press editor Barrett Watten & I had shared a flat on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. Then, one evening, returning from Baltimore to the Bay Area after what may have been my first East Coast reading tour, I opened Lyn’s volume up on the airplane and read the book cover to cover, stunned at what a wonderful work it was. Whatever impetus Lyn may have gotten from my work, she had taken it in a different direction & accomplished something unbelievably wonderful in the process. While I know that My Life is not her own favorite work – poets I think must always be focused on what they’re doing now & what they’ve done most recently – I think it’s no accident that My Life, whether in the 1980 37 years in 37 paragraphs of 37 sentences each version or in the (to my eye, slightly more diffuse) later Sun & Moon edition, 43 years in 43 paragraphs of 43 sentences each, will always be her defining work for many readers, virtually all of them ardent fans as a result of the experience. My Life is deservedly one of the classics of the 20th century.

I had something of the same experience reading Steve Benson’s Open Clothes this summer. Like My Life’s relationship to Ketjak, the last 83 pages of Open Clothes consists, with one major exception, of works written entirely in questions, the same device used in my own Sunset Debris, first published in Roof VII in 1978, and later published in book form by Roof in 1986 as part of its abbreviated version of The Age of Huts¹. To this day, it’s still the text I’m mostly like to read from if & when I’m reading to an audience that I expect will not have much experience with either my work or post-avant writing in general, as when I’ve read with Robert Hunter, whose years as the lyricist for the Grateful Dead brings in a somewhat different crowd than usually shows up at my events.

All of which means that when I open up Open Clothes, the 800-pound gorilla I have to get out of the way in order to read this text is myself. That’s not an easy process.

One way is to ask what isn’t simply the replication of Sunset Debris, much in the way that I was, on the plane trip, able to see for the first time that Lyn was doing something other (and more) than reduplicating my mode of disjunctive sentences from Ketjak. In her case, she turned the language literally in a different direction, away from the phenomenological & obsessively reiterative approach I had used toward her own past. The work was not about perception nearly so much as it was recollection, almost literally. Then there was her formal organization, which was simultaneously elegant & taut.

The answer as to what isn’t replication is, as you might have suspected, pretty much everything. To a degree that I can’t think of in any other book, including for that matter My Life, a comparison of what I’ll call the question works in Open Clothes with Sunset Debris demonstrates just how much this structuring of syntax is simply exoskeletal detail & that the real meat of what goes on in poetry – in language itself, I suppose – occurs on a deeper level yet.

Benson is first of all an improviser, which means that, at least in some circumstances, he composes his poems in public. He discusses this process twice during Open Clothes, once in a series of “After Notes” at the back of the book and again in a transcribed Q&A session printed here among the poems. Benson describes some of this process in this paragraph of the “After Notes”:

I finally did read in New York in February 2003, on a bill with Andrew Levy, and my fully improvised performance is transcribed here as “Did the lights go out.” It was hard at first, in spite of lots of practice, to keep all the sentences interrogative, but I kept correcting myself as I went along, which is how I improvise – though usually I have no particular idea what is right. A few days later, I did the same reading again in Philadelphia, transcribed here as “If you stop to listen to yourself.” In each event, I thought of the opening line shortly before I stood up to begin, but I had no other lines, strategies, or topics figured out in advance. I did, however, remind myself to move around sometimes. A longer “process note” on this reading appears at the website of Kelly Writers House at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/visitors/stevebenson.html.² “Is your thinking about the words” is a verbatim transcript of the public discussion that followed the second reading, with a letter assigned to each speaker from the audience, alphabetically, in order of appearance.

If this sounds potentially awkward, it ought to. Whereas Sunset Debris is always, at all points, writing, that is “the written” in the classic sense, each sentence plotted out with an eye not only to internal construction but how its juxtaposition is going to enable the reader’s frame to evolve, Benson’s improvisations are exercises in ongoing thinking, tentativeness, uncertainty and creative leaps that enable his questions – often longer and more winding than anything I would come up with – to complete themselves. If, as Bob Perelman once described my prose work, every sentence is its own short story, many of the questions in Benson’s Open Clothes are cliffhangers. If the price to pay for this is the willingness to seem awkward in performance, Benson has made a great grace of this. When you are actually listening to these pieces, you experience the end of each question – I want to say “each question mark” – with the thrill of rescue, of survival.

I was in New York over the weekend and wandered about the Chelsea on Saturday looking at the galleries. At the Gagosian, Richard Serra’s latest show of rusting metallic sculptures has been held over – now more than a month beyond its original “pull date.” These pieces feel heavy & stolid to me – there is a roomful of slabs and one work, “Round,” is a large round cylinder, not one of the giant coils of his last show there (which I thought of at the time as Serra’s Cinnabon collection), but filled in, like a Jack & the Beanstalk version of the kind of cement guards intended to protect some parts of parking lots (like the entrance to supermarkets) from runaway vehicles. Sunset Debris feels heavy to me in much the same way now – a solid block of text, unrelieved battering of the reader with question after question. Benson doesn’t feel like this in the slightest.

Partly this is because Benson is questioning himself as much as he does the reader, which frankly is a more confident stance for a poet than the one I was able to take three decades back. When “you” appears here, Benson is solicitous, much more than accusatory:

Do you want a martini?
Do you want a second martini?

It is this same impulse, I think, that leads him to include the discussion with students & other poets from the Writers House event, just as tho it were another improvisation, another poem, in this book. The question for Steve Benson is a fundamentally inclusive, embracing gesture. I have to admit that I don’t think this is true for Sunset Debris, and that my work feels to me now much more about discerning borders – this is where the writer ends, the reader begins, a continual scratching of a mark in the sand with some anxiety (What was I so anxious about?) as to who might cross this and how.

Think, for a second, of Benson’s tone in this piece or segment from “Open Notebook”:

Is there any such thing as floating
backwards? How can I tell if my heart is closed?
Will I find a way to open compassion and courage
in knowing and accepting myself? What distracts
me? Did anyone else hear the mist dripping off
the trees this morning? How can our friendship
survive such poverty?

There may be other sections, other passages elsewhere in this book, closer in their intent to what I had in mind, but nowhere in Sunset Debris is there a space where that passage could have taken place. It would have been a stronger work had there been such a space at that moment in my life, but it wasn’t to be. I’m appalled to admit this, but nowhere in The Age of Huts does the word compassion appear. Talk about having to learn the simplest things last!

So I’m not the right person, obviously, to review Open Clothes, but I do want you to know that I think this book is important and powerful, but powerful not because of how Benson exercises or craves power, but rather because of the care with which he heeds power’s sharp & heavy edges. The result, for me, is a lesson I need to work on personally, perhaps more than it is about what makes for good or great poetry. But I want to thank Steve for the beautiful way he’s forced me to dance with that 800-lb gorilla in my life.

 

 

¹ The full suite of The Age of Huts consists of Ketjak, the three poems in the Roof edition (Sunset Debris, The Chinese Notebook and 2197) as well as two satellite works, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps and BART. In the 1970s, when these works were mostly written, had not yet gotten to the point where I could get them published in a single volume. They will finally appear together for the first time next year when UC Press publishes The Age of Huts (compleat).

² A recording of the event in RealAudio format is also available there. PENNsound also has an MP3 of Benson’s New York event as part of its extensive Segue archive.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

 

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