Monday, June 04, 2007

 

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been seventeen years since Gil Ott was the writer in residence at the Headlands Institute in some old military barracks that you get to through a little tunnel from the outskirts of Sausalito on what is literally called Bunker Road. I’d known that Gil had lived in Marin earlier in his life, had in fact shared a tree house somewhere in the Bolinas area with Kush, an anthropologist, poet & later the ubiquitous videographer of poetry readings in & around the City. But I hadn’t known Gil then & he hadn’t stayed. He’d gotten sick & learned that his kidneys were failing. The Gil Ott I first corresponded with in 1978 was living again with his parents in a suburb of Philadelphia called Blue Bell, quite unhappy about that fact, restless really, trying to figure out how he was going to make his way as a poet & a person with a compromised body, making his first real effort with a magazine called Paper Air that he’d started a couple of years before.

I didn’t actually meet Gil for another year or two when, one day when I was supposed to be having lunch with Charles Bernstein in Manhattan, Charles showed up with Gil. After lunch Charles had to return to his job as a CETA-artist, leaving Gil & I in each other’s company with a free afternoon ahead of us. Gil wanted to walk, so we did, although it proved to be slow going. He was in need of a kidney transplant he explained – this was the first I’d heard of this – and didn’t have the stamina to go very fast. In fact, though he was four years my junior, he walked as tho he were in his nineties, slow, deliberate steps that made each block take up to 20 minutes. The amazing thing, in retrospect, was that we walked for hours, down through the Lower East Side, down Hester Street past all the little carts (I hadn’t known that such scenes still existed in America), back up through Little Italy, all the while Gil expounding on his life, his reading, the scene in Philadelphia (about which I functionally knew nothing), his poetics, what he was trying to accomplish with Paper Air, his sense of urgency that American poets, especially progressive poets, needed to be progressive in their politics as well. I know that Gil later professed that it was “just a walk,” and to some degree he was preaching to the choir trying to persuade me of positions I’d already held for some time, but it was the closest thing to an education in one afternoon – a complete statement of one’s active poetics – as I’d ever heard anyone ever give. More than a quarter of a century later, that’s still true.

So when Gil came out to the Bay Area to do a residency as the Headlands Institute in 1990, there was an undercurrent of satisfaction in it for him – he was poet returning to a previous home as a successful writer. Since Gil often had a disproportionate sense of how much power the School of Quietude had – he never applied, he once told me, for a Pew Fellowship since he already “knew” he was going to lose¹ – this was an especially sweet moment for him. Paper Air, Singing Horse Press & his own writing were all successful, Gil was still in his role as the literary director of The Painted Bride, an arts center on the north side of Olde City.

While Gil was at the Headlands, he composed the first three-fourths of a work called The Whole Note, later to be published as a small book by Manuel Brito’s Zasterle Press on the Canary Islands. For Gil, it’s a remarkably formal project, brilliantly conceived & executed. The work is composed of four sections, each of which in turn is a sequence of eight passages, or pages. Both in the book & the one anthology excerpt I have around (Dennis Barone & Peter Ganick’s The Practice of Outside, which contains the one section not written at the Headlands), each passage is according its own page, so I tend to think of them – and call them – just that: pages.

Each page is composed of between four and six smaller sections. In the book, they look like paragraphs, tho only the first begins at the start of a sentence with a capital letter. In the anthology, which uses a page larger than the 4-by-6 inch Zasterle edition, they look more like lines, since the shorter ones down turn back again at the right hand margin. In both places, any line that runs over is printed as tho it were prose.

What it looks like in the book is that a paragraph, invariably of seven or eight sentences, is divided into these subdivisions, so that each page is thus one “true” (if not physical) paragraph. But this isn’t so much the case in the anthology, where each “line” looks more independent. Thus consider the first page of what in The Practice of Outside is called “Fourth Fourth”:

Moving, variant ornithography of those uninitiated

made into memory by the me briefly incarnate. Full of myself on successive nights dense and alone sings

you back. Need keeps the book of dying open, the language common after all. Relieved, the task finally changing prompts tapping my reserve

feeling, now, wise to its edge. Where are you risk any detail of what’s in me, having been tricked by the image of a man. Softly paint the intuit

applications under authority of breathing. I drive this one, I get winded

calendar’s familiar, speed and abruption.

Now consider the same passage from what is called “4/4” in the book, where a tighter page uses justified margins:

Moving, variant ornithography of those uninitiated

made into memory by the me briefly incarnate. Full of myself on successive nights dense and alone sings

you back. Need keeps the book of dying open, the language common after all. Relieved, the task finally changing prompts tapping my reserve

feeling, now, wise to its edge. Where are you risk any detail of what’s in me, having been tricked by the image of a man. Softly paint the intuit

applications under authority of breathing. I drive this one, I get winded

calendar’s familiar, speed and abruption.

Actually, I can’t quite capture this in HTML since the Zasterle page uses mid-word hyphens to tighten the kerning even further. But you get the idea.

In the first three sections of The Whole Note, Ott sculpts his phrases – they sometimes build into sentences, but more often sweep this way & that, reaching a climax rather than a conclusion – from what he observed at the Headlands – kestrels appear – and his reading, which at that moment focused on Santeria & voo doo (the one book he credits by name, in a footnote to a page in “3/4” is Louis Mars’ The Crisis of Possession in Voodoo). The fourth section, composed back in Philadelphia, begins first by turning inward, away from landscape. Instead of birds, we get, literally, ornithography, a neologism that combines both birds & moving, associating immanence (the me briefly incarnate) with memory.

Much of “4/4” brings together issues implicit in the first three sections, as movement is contrasted with terms like debility and even Cripple. A major concern, perceptible but not tated, is whether one can accept unconditional love if one has issues with oneself. The argument makes perfect sense for a man who would have multiple kidney transplants in his life, every one of which eventually would fail. But a writer’s presence need not be reduced to or limited by the body, as true for Gil Ott as it was for Larry Eigner. The poem’s final page is about as close to pure closure as the post-avant Ott would allow himself:

Prone to the observance, a formal end only, blurred with or without morphine decides to live. I have made a mistake, a meandering

stasis, down a notch and starting over. Someone else’s surgery pulled a knot out, left a man handled roughly

bumped and thrown what dirt brackets. Possessed of this violence, a plea remains. Fed on seed here, a small black bird

far and still admissible.
I will build a body of utterance, that fooled me. The odor will stay, and I

will walk away.

I am aware, as I think everyone at the reading on Sunday must have been, that Gil Ott is somebody who needs to have his big collected poems out, because there’s a marvel there that every reader I know could benefit from. This body of utterance stands tall & strong.

 

¹ Pew recipients over the years include Linh Dinh, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jena Osman, Lamont Steptoe, Bob Perelman, Mytili Jagannathan, Teresa Leo, Homer Jackson, Major Jackson, Molly Russakoff & yours truly, a list that I think suggests that Ott was almost certain to have received a Pew at some point, if only he’d applied.

Drawing of Gil Ott by Christopher Webster courtesy of Artvoice.

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