Saturday, February 03, 2007
Frosty, the snow job
(what’s wrong with Irish poetry)
Designing book covers
“The only people writing
should be those who must write,
I scrawl in a notebook
as I sit on the side of the running bath
while my young son
makes duck noises
Three Palestinian poets
The ambiguous William Empson
UC sues Derrida’s family
Penguin’s novel novel
is a wiki
Friday, February 02, 2007
There is something about the construction of a book as object that ensures that a 78-page hard-cover volume of poems will appear to be “slender” in ways that a comparable paperback original will not. This makes it possible, I think, to mistake Rae Armantrout’s new book, Next Life, for something more frail, less searing in its intensity, maybe less fierce in its intelligence, than it really is. At least until you open the cover. When you do that, the best analogy may just be an improvised explosive device.
I’ve been reading Rae Armantrout’s poetry now, almost daily as it happens, for close to forty years. I’ve seen most of these poems in various stages of composition as well – Armantrout is perfectly capable of trying 20 different variations on the same two or three lines until she gets one that is, from a reader’s perspective, completely unsettling. At the same time, Armantrout writes the “simplest,” and “most clear” poems of any of the language poets. But consider this, which is in fact titled “Clear”:
An old woman is being led through the parking lot by two girls. They hold her hands and speak in energetic, explanatory bursts while she cranks her head this way and that as if expecting something which has yet to appear.
As if the crystalline clarity of this ocean pool, cradled in two lava arms, meant something which we had been waiting to hear, something indistinguishable from meaning itself, and unchanging, so that, finally, it’s we who turn to go.
How can a poem that is just three sentences, two paragraphs, two images, be at once as clear as the pool cradled in two lava arms and so completely enigmatic? At one level, I read this as tho watching a magic trick. I watch it over & over & still can’t see how the card or the coin or the suddenly released white dove reappears. I think there’s a correlation at some deeply pre-rational level between those two lava arms and the “old woman” that completely transforms the analogy, rendering it simultaneously three-dimensional & entirely mysterious. Because you couldn’t diagram it if you tried.
That mystery, the unnamable, a persistent dread, is a constant in Armantrout’s work, never far from the suburban mall surfaces she renders with greater accuracy than anyone in my generation. Consider, again, the relation of ants to war and – especially! – to mother in this poem just two pages further in. Or, for that matter, televised. It’s entitled, rather in the classic Armantrout manner, “Yonder”:
If each point
is a singularity,
thrusting all else
aside for good,
”good” takes the form
of a throng
of empty chairs.
Or it’s ants
swarming a bone.
I don’t love
though I once –
what does “once” mean? –
did love her.
So who’ll meet me over yonder?
I don’t recognize the place names.
Or I do, but they come
from televised wars.
Now go back and explain the function & meaning of that first couplet. I don’t think that’s possible, not in any easy sense, but it’s essential to the construction of meaning in this poem.
One notices in Next Life a shift in direction in Armantrout’s concerns, which have been fairly consistent going back to her first book, Extremities. The social commentary of the cultural quotidian, the surrealism of the mall and suburban “commercial strips” has almost entirely dropped away. What remains are the sort of short, intense philosophical poems that are the ones that remind some of Armantrout’s readers not of any affinity with language poetry, but with the work of her most direct ancestor, Emily Dickinson. I won’t be surprised if some readers aren’t ambivalent about this new, sharper focus. And I won’t even be shocked if someone doesn’t decide to declare Armantrout to be a spiritual, if not religious, poet either. But I do think it will be impossible for people to read these poems and think of her as a “slight” or even “fun” read – the poems may sometimes look like the work, say, of Robert Creeley or of a more recent writer like Graham Foust, but the intensity of Armantrout’s new poems can be draining on an attentive reader, even when she employs her well-loved sense of humor, as in “Remote”:
The breath coming
like a small frog
at the bottom of a fish tank,
then darting up to surface
Remote and, by now, automated
distress calls fill the air.
Do you believe this?
shifts a small weight
there and back.
My self-reflection shames God
Considering what the possibilities are for an image to attach to that first section (my favorite is the head of the poet plunged into the aquarium, not just because it’s hysterically funny, but also because it reminds me in some perverse way of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck”), the starkness of those last two lines make me want to sit up and say “Whoa!” I want to write that the word self-reflection is the key to this poem, but the use of the word small two lines before seems at least as pivotal, as does in the second section, the term automated. There’s not one wrong word in this poem. Indeed, there may not be one in this entire book.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
When I was the executive editor of The Socialist Review, back betwixt 1986 & 1989, I found myself reading The Texas Observer, a journal with which we traded free subscriptions, just so I could read this one fantastic columnist they had by the name of Molly Ivins. So I was not at all surprised, in the intervening years, as she went on to become famous as a nationally syndicated columnist, her razor-sharp wit, common sense & basic human decency being a killer combination of skills for anyone in her line of work. She tried to warn the nation about the man she dubbed Shrub, and she was right.
Ms. Ivins kept writing right through her three bouts with cancer, tho it cut into her regularity as a columnist & turned her magnificent head of red hair white &, at points, non-existent. Her final column, just three weeks ago, was entitled “Stand Up Against the Surge.” One way to say thank you to Molly for all of her decades of work in our behalf today is to join some one million bloggers and blog readers who will call their U.S. Senators to tell them to stop the escalation & bring our troops home now. Follow this link –
– and the good folks at MoveOn will help with the phone numbers and even show you when the best time to call is &, if you want, send a text message to your cell phone reminding you when that moment has arrived. If anybody asks, tell them Molly sent you.
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
photo courtesy of Woollahra Library
What readings look like
down under –
Valentine’s Day reading
on the shores of
(but you can’t hear
the giant fruit bats
quarrelling in the trees
MacDonnell Douglas DC3
as it flies overhead,
so says John Tranter)
in George W’s
state of the onion
An anthology of the history
of Puerto Rican
in one interview
The impact of PGW’s
on small presses
Meanwhile, the creditors
are in court
And the blogs are dishing
Linton Kwesi Johnson
Danielle Legros Georges
What 11 poets
The British Library
story about new
(yes, there have been
90 or so new bookshops
in each of the last two years,
but roughly 260 others
close each year)
goes to church
“The library is on fire”
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver is the most original motion picture I’ve seen in ages. With a plot worthy of Hitchcock at his most whimsical, the most ardently feminist vision in a major motion picture since Thelma & Louise – women take care of one another, men are loners who abuse & abandon – and a tremendous cast with women in every major role, Volver is one of those terrific evenings at the movies you want to go on & on.
Volver is a film about relationships between women, but not necessarily one about easy camaraderie. Agustina, played by Spanish TV and theater actress Blanca Portillo, makes a serious, even desperate, request of her lifelong friend & one-time neighbor, Raimunda, played by Penélope Cruz, but Raimunda fails to take her seriously. Raimunda rejected her mother in life so deeply that when the spirit of the mother – portrayed by Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown star Carmen Maura – returns, she hides from her daughter. Raimunda refuses to tell her own daughter Paula, played by the brilliantly sulking Yohana Cobo, who her biological father really is. Raimunda lies to Emilio, who leaves her the keys to his failing restaurant, and to anyone who asks the whereabouts of her husband Paco. Her own mother’s deceptions are no less grand.
I’m not the right person to judge whether or not Almadóvar is the best person to make a film that is so thoroughly from a woman’s point of view, tho it’s not the first time he’s done this. In many respects, I think this is his most successful motion picture. The narrative architecture is less happenstance & even elegant, the story line compelling, and the acting is terrific. In fact, one reason why Cruz won’t win the Oscar for which she’s been nominated this year (Helen Mirren being another) is that Cruz, who does an effective job throughout and is brilliant in the scenes with her daughter & in one scene in particular, filmed entirely in close-up, where she’s rejected her drunken, unemployed husband & lies in bed listening to him masturbate, is that her work here doesn’t stand out from the first-rate acting of the others, especially Cobo or Maura (who is the most charming ghost since Leo G. Carroll played Cosmo Topper).
As wonderful as Volver is, it does suffer from the perennial film cliché of powerful problems that could have been solved far more simply if only the characters would communicate with one another. It continues to amaze me just how many motion pictures present stories that would unravel if some key character would just ask a question that is screaming to be posed. And while the narrative scaffolding is not nearly as improvised as in Almodóvar’s earlier films, one visit to the river from CSI Madrid would give this film an entirely different – and far more ominous – ending. Further, Raimunda has a janitorial position in a large corporation that simply disappears when it stops being convenient for narrative development. ¿Que pasa? There is also the detail that Raimunda, having been a teenage mother married to a drunken lout & working at back-breaking manual labor for years, remains drop-dead beautiful. And there is, in the middle of all this narrative, a break for one song, something that makes no sense structurally at all.
But other touches are far more subtle & effective. A producer of the film that’s shooting in the vicinity, and who hires Raimunda & the restaurant she has more or less appropriated to feed lunch to his crew, clearly is attracted to Cruz. They don’t get together but the moment where it almost happens is a soft, perfectly directed scene (it’s also the one point in the movie where Almodóvar at least entertains the idea that not all men are monsters). Also pitch perfect are most of the comedic scenes, my favorite being the ghost in the trunk of the car.
The one thing about this movie I flat out don’t understand is how it got an “R” rating. Is it because the plot revolves around “adult” themes? Because we see Cobo, who is supposed to be 14 (but is actually 22), topless for about five seconds? Because there’s blood (tho no violence)? The squeamishness of the American film rating system has hardly ever looked less intelligent.
Monday, January 29, 2007
So when, looking later this same week through the one hundred or books that have arrived in the mail this past month, I noted a book whose back cover reads
I had to show it to
Kelly is one of the younger New Americans or post-New Americans (take your pick) who stands as a bridge betwixt that aesthetic and langpo. It’s not an accident that Kelly, in fact, had the very first poem in the first issue of This, the magazine edited by Barrett Watten and, for the first couple of issues, Robert Grenier. In more respects than one might imagine, Kelly has a lot of similarities with Clark Coolidge. Both write enormous amounts – Kelly’s Wikipedia site notes that he’s published “more than fifty” books of poetry & prose, and the note itself hasn’t been updated in eight years – and it would seem that each poet must easily produce more than one book of new work every year. Both also have a range around which almost all of their mature writing seems to operate, tho they are somewhat different from one another as to what that range might be. And both give an awful lot of authority to the role of the ear in the poem.
Right now, if May Day and the recent Shame, his collaborative prose work with Birgit Kempker, are any indication, Kelly is in an especially productive period of his writing, at the top of his form. Here’s an untitled poem from May Day:
We say he went to heaven
or heaven happened to him
right here, like Foucauld
in Africa, blood over white
sometimes the comedy
comes first, Marx’s
patterned lute that sang
the looms of Lombardy
all work and no stained glass
the gods exist to take
this pain away, gold filigreed
their skins of lapis blue
Marx’s lute in Mao’s fingers
no one understands
power is the choosing not to tell
or not to kill
I am in the sky, it said,
winged, of either sex
as your body may have need
my six wings all hovering
they cover us both
the wrap, finale, apocalypse
of all our skin
unwrapping the mystery
to spill this ordinary thing.
I don’t think you need to know the difference between Charles de Foucauld and Michel Foucault to read this poem (tho it probably helps not to presume one is the other). Rather, the poem reminds me of how, when, in the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote that religion “is the opium of the people,” he clearly intended the term opium to be understood medicinally and not in terms of opium dens or recreational drug use: “the gods exist to take / this pain away.” But Marx’s “lute” – his celebration of the actual labor of peasants – becomes something quite different in the brutal & stupid re-education programs that characterized life under the Gang of Four in the PRC. Yet what amounted to a kind of class genocide in the
I have now the unutterable, the inexpressibly profound happiness of raking manure.
Kelly has never wavered in his career in knowing which side of this argument he preferred. At the same time, he’s not pinning his soul on a single narrative that would transform spirituality into institutional religion:
I am in the sky, it said,
winged, of either sex
as your body may have need
I can imagine an interesting test for an undergraduate literature course that had, as one question, a requirement to identify and discuss “the ordinary thing” of this poem’s final line. I would add a further question: is a “wrong” answer possible?
Very much like Coolidge, Kelly, even tho he writes poems – there are a few booklength projects, like Shame or Axon Dendron Tree, in his oeuvre, but even they seem to stop at the last page – actually falls on the poetry side of what I think of as the poem vs. poetry divide. It’s as if the poems channel into some wavelength of which they are representative strands. At one point, reading this book, I began a wonderful piece entitled “The Politics of You” and, when it came time to turn the page, turned two by accident, so that I found myself reading the end of “Twelfth Night,” and it made – aesthetically at least – excellent sense. Here is the collaged text:
I meant a politics unwinding
the machinery, the bluegreen
feeling that just happens
when a thing is finished
even if it’s not finished well
or something’s put away
into its place and the mind is clear
for a minute or two, losing
your colonies after a war
no more Togo no more Kamerun
I mean where are my legs
to stand, why is the earth
denied to those it bore?
A Latin question, the kind
old poems ask and colleges
yawn over for a thousand years,
don’t get me wrong I’m asking
for you to be beside me
to live in touch as some men live in hope,
a cathedral is never finished
always a ruin, the great abbey
open to the instruction of the wind,
a roofless love, the woman I forgot
some called her turquoise
because her eyes were ocean
in that sallow place, cubicula
locanda saw Apollinaire
rooms for rent in Latin
for the students, nobody knows
how Flemish I really am
but those who have felt
my dame mustache sur la nuque
and breathed in my fantasizing breath,
Christ stumbling into Brussels
in Ensor’s painting, and I am all
the other faces, mask under mask
until the simplest touches
you and goes to heaven, how easy
such a politics could be if we had a little
bungalow right near the beach
and money is only good in drugstores
on toothpaste and Vaseline and soap
and we eat whatever the fishermen catch
and they catch whatever we throw away,
this is the art history museum please
you follow the footsteps of the visitors
and see what they see, what they look at
longest must be the best, write it down
as your dissertation, who are you
to go against the current of the world?
I was a salmon once and look at me now
with a twisted jaw and full of lust
and the only way for me to move is up,
if you love me there is plenty to eat
shadows and the warm tabernacles
and even among the avalanches
the rhythm of all things is our salvation,
we ride our world between our legs,
people fear me often when we meet
because some text is crumbling
from my mouth, reservoir and baptistery
and gentle old stone basin in a cloister
all the ruses of water, o mirror
of your stillness, hazardous face –
when the wind blows I see
what I will look like when I’m old
but I could be your beast until the end,
I saw my death year cut in plain marble
of somewhere else, some other god
crept onto the altar last night,
there is always another color hidden
inside what we see, like a girl with
an amber lozenge in her mouth
you’ll never know the taste of
till you kiss her but she runs away.
Support me by the fabric
I mean the factory of dream
by which we are clothed
and dare to walk along the road
from this town to another
without apology for our feebleness
nakedness, only two legs,
only two hands, how will I ever.
And that is the little glory of us
we have to invent calculus every day
and learn a new language
that calls itself Greek again
but this Plato is not like I remember
and his Socrates is nailed to a barn door
and his Alcibiades is a girl in the woods
running naked as a fox for a forgetting.
If you don’t have the book to check against, I don’t think a reader can honestly tell where one poem ends & the other picks up. Obviously, such a reading is a form of violence to Kelly’s poetry – Forgive me, Robert! – but I think the result, this Levitican text, demonstrates several things about Kelly’s work. One is that it often moves laterally, bringing in many different topics, tales, even languages, while it also continually returns to certain themes & elements again & again – the Latin of Apollinaire & the Greek of Plato & Alcibiades come from two different poems, yet I at least find this mélange of my own misreading to be quite powerful & moving. As poetry, it works completely. Now both of the two source poems here are considerably tighter – closer to poems than poetry, at least in relative terms – than this text would make it appear. But the underlying values of each are, I think, those of poetry more than of poems – they have more in common with Charles Olson or Louis Zukofsky or Pound’s Cantos than they do the fixed positions & formal containments one finds, say, in the work of virtually any School of Quietude poet, and which can be found as well in the writings of such post-avants as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jonathan Williams, Frank O’Hara (Biotherm would be an exception), Jack Spicer or Denise Levertov. Kelly in this sense is decidedly a writer of poetry, even when it shows up, as here, in what clearly are poems.
What this means is that you can pick up Kelly at almost any point – just open a book and start reading anywhere – and you will almost always get a good result. Another is that Kelly could, if he wanted, take on a project of some heft – say, equivalent to Ashbery’s Flow Chart, which certainly is more words even if not more pages than Axon Dendron Tree – and it would be totally readable, cover to cover, perhaps more so than Ashbery’s poem, which often feels at odds with its own scale (unlike Three Poems).
But also like Coolidge, I think Kelly’s decision to write poetry within poems, resulting in many mostly small books, makes it easy, too easy perhaps, to undervalue his accomplishments as a writer. The number of poets of the generation immediately older than mine (who came into their own as poets during the 1960s) who are still writing and publishing new work has dwindled noticeably in recent years – the New Americans are down to a handful – and the number of such poets who are, right now, at the very top of their game as writers may even be a list of just one. We’re fortunate that one is Robert Kelly.
Labels: Robert Kelly
Sunday, January 28, 2007
“Food in eternity, food and sex, food and lust”
A portrait of Jim Harrison
“Don’t feed the poets”
tries to write about
The text-message novel
has already been published
has published its
132nd & last
it’s really 131 interviews
plus a tribute to
tho that includes
Ray Bianchi’s interview
Assamese poetry now
(tho I’m not so sure
I trust this
the shower curtain
is the world still
”all that is the case?”
finds an age
A history of music
Are the days
of zen & poetry
on the mesa
to high fashion?
Early David Markson
returned to print