Friday, March 02, 2007
Musidora as Irma Vep, 1915
We were in the mood for a change of pace & so decided to watch Irma Vep, a 1996 French flick by Olivier Assayas starring the unlikely couple of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Maggie Cheung. Afterwards,
Léaud of course started out as the boy actor Francois Truffaut used as a surrogate for himself, starting with 400 Blows. Later Léaud became the protégé of Jean-Luc Godard, starring in such classics as Weekend, Masculine-Feminine, Le Chinoise & Pierrot Le Fou. Although he served for a time as an assistant director for both Truffaut & Godard, Léaud ended up primarily focusing on acting, continuing on in such films as Last Tango in Paris (where he refused to act on the same days of the week as Marlon Brando), 36 Fillette, even an uncredited role in the Cate Blanchett version of Elizabeth. Léaud is noted for his use of improvisation, indeed is often hired for this, and is known for mumbling his way through roles, something he does to good effect here as the director who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And then some.
The Hong Kong-born but British-schooled Maggie Cheung, on the other hand, is a major
This film is a version of what is by now a film type: the parodic insider view of the making of a motion picture. From 8½ to Ed Wood to Tristram Shandy to the documentary Lost in La Mancha, variations on this theme are so familiar that it requires a brilliant variation to make the genre stand up at all. In this regard, Assayas’ version has several things going for it. First, the lead actress plays herself, and seemingly does not speak French, which enables pretty much the rest of the cast to talk about her in her presence without her responding or reacting. Second, the premise is that Léaud’s character, a director in some serious decline, has been hired to remake the French film classic Les Vampires, a silent serial from 1915 starring the actress Musidora. Les Vampires, about a gang of jewel thieves, may be the first action film to star a woman: Irma Vep is literally an anagram of the word vampire. Third, there is a question in the plot of the film as to the level to which Cheung’s preparation of her role goes beyond the usual bounds of method acting. Fourth, when Léaud’s character goes entirely around the bend & has to be replaced, the new director – whose one demand is that they fire the Chinese actress – sees Léaud’s work, edited in progress, only to discover that Léaud has hand altered virtually every frame, giving this remake of the familiar 1915 fare (which we see more than once) a shocking, pseudo-avant garde climax.
Made in a month’s time after Assayas met Cheung at a film festival, Vep is a study in the ways in which film-making’s situation as a collaboration under capital alienates all of its workers. This is worth thinking about given the number of new corporate gurus, starting with In Search of Excellence author Tom Peters, love to use the trope of the film production team as a model for next-generation business: specialists coming together for a set and limited time to create a specific product, then disappearing again into the night (without, dare we say, lasting benefits or any concept of the value of experience manifested through seniority). Just as
This is reinforced in the one interview Cheung gives while on the set, with a French journalist who can’t stop yattering about how bad French films are, made by intellectuals for an elite through government subsidies, so unlike the “great” American “directors,” Schwarzenegger & Van Damme. When the new director, played by Lou Castel (and given a Spanish name, José Mirano), arrives, his motivation for taking on the project has much to do with the fact that his welfare is running out.
There are other layers worth noting here, including the discussions of costumes and Cheung’s figure, particularly when contrasted with the fuller figure of Musidora in the role in 1915. Assayas has done a remarkably good job of bringing together a lot of interesting, intellectually crunchy ideas, into a film that easily could have collapsed into predictability but instead offers itself instead as the most bittersweet of comedies.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
It is a sign of a considerable amount of editorial confidence for a literary journal, any literary journal, to start running three poems by John Ashbery on page 319. Conjunctions can do it for its 25th anniversary issue because
(a) it’s an all-star issue, even by the standards of Conjunctions, which has been the best literary review in American now for pretty much all of its 25 years;
(b) the lead-off position is already inhabited by Jonathan Lethem;
(c) 319 is still 97 pages ahead of where John Barth’s latest work turns up.
The table of contents for this issue is simply intimidating. It includes, in the following order: Jonathan Lethem; Ann Lauterbach; Jim Crace; Peter Gizzi; Joanna Scott; Valerie Martin; Robert Antoni; Lydia Davis; Robert Kelly; Howard Norman; Edie Meidav; Clark Coolidge; Marcella Durand; C.D. ; Wright; Christopher Sorrentino; Joyce Carol Oates; Reginald Shepherd; Rosmarie Waldrop; Elizabeth Robinson; Peter Dale Scott; William H. Gass; Micheline Aharonian Marcom; Can Xue; Martine Bellen; Marjorie Welish; Edmund White; Rikki Ducornet; Jonathan Carroll; Peter Straub; John Ashbery; Barbara Guest; Keith Waldrop; Maureen Howard; Lynne Tillman; Rick Moody; Julia Elliott; Rae Armantrout; Lyn Hejinian; Forrest Gander; Jessica Hagedorn; Brenda Coultas; Scott Geiger; Diane Williams; John Barth; and Will Self.
With regards to poetry, that’s an interesting list in & of itself. It includes two masters of the New Americans Poetry (NAP) (Ashbery & Guest), four poets from the generation immediately following the New Americans (Kelly, both Waldrops, Peter Dale Scott), three langpos (Coolidge, Armantrout, Hejinian), several “third way” or elliptical poets (Wright, Lauterbach, Welish, Gander), one identarian (Hagedorn), even one School of Quietude writer (Shepherd), plus several younger poets of the post-langpo variety (Gizzi, Durand, Robinson, Bellen, Coultas). That’s the kind of broad-spectrum inclusion one used to associate with Poetry magazine during the later years of Henry Rago’s tenure there. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that several of these poets also treat Conjunctions much the way writers did Poetry in those years as well, by saving their best, or at least favorite, poems for the journal. It doesn’t matter all that much that Shepherd might not be one of the SoQ poets I would think to pick if I were making an effort to show that tendency off to its best advantage (tho it's not his first appearance in the journal's pages), or that Hagedorn’s contribution is fiction. Rather, Brad Morrow is doing what good editors do best: he is giving us a path through poetry that shows how one might choose to read each of these writers & kinds of writing. The issue as a whole can be read as an argument, or even as a jigsaw puzzle. Morrow is showing us how, for him, these pieces fit together.
He is also offering us a series of values as well. With the exception of Shepherd, really all of the other poets included, even Hagedorn, fall into the broad post-avant tradition. But Morrow is not without his commitments here also. There’s no visual poetry, none of the politically inflected documentation oriented poetics that one saw around a journal like Chain (tho one might make the case that Peter Dale Scott is a direct antecedent to such), nor the pure-play conceptual poetics, say, of a Kenny Goldsmith or Christian Bök. With the exception of the langpos & Peter Dale Scott, the poets are uniformly from the East Coast. The New American are both
I would suspect that one could trace a very similar set of values through the prose work here as well. Gass, White & Barth may be among the most honored fiction writers of the past half century, but they’re all decidedly High Lit & with more than a little of the Pomo about them. Oates is deceiving because she often looks like a conventional writer, but she produces so much work so quickly (a trait she shares with Robert Kelly) & her writing always bristles with ideas & a superb ear (ditto Kelly again, but one might also say much the same about Stephen King, who would be a surprise to find here). Jonathan Lethem is a present-tense fiction superstar, the way Barth was in the 1970s, &, also like Barth, is a writer whose intellectual ambition is almost without bound. Lydia Davis is very possibly the best writer of short fiction since Borges or Kafka. Although she received a MacArthur a couple of years ago, she’s still on my list of most under-celebrated writers of my generation.
I’ve tended – this may be my own bias showing through here – to imagine that Morrow’s editorial vision has always been so strong because he got it not so much in grad school as he did in the book business itself, buying & selling books & archives. How much should one credit Morrow’s co-founder Kenneth Rexroth, whose own allegiances to the New Americans, for example, were not with the New York School (nor, for that matter, with the Projectivists, the other NAP tendency one is apt to find in these pages albeit not so directly in this issue¹, at least not after Creeley ran off with his wife), and who died basically the same year Conjunctions was founded? It’s easy to forget that Morrow was not already a successful novelist when this project began & that the quality of the first handful of issues, before people began to automatically associate Conjunctions with quality, is as much a consequence of his own chutzpah as anything else. Conjunctions is a major magazine, possibly the last print journal deserving that designation in
¹ One might see the Projectivist influence indirectly here through the presence of Kelly, one of the poets most directly influenced by Olsonian poetics and by what I would characterize as “Duncan’s reading of Zukofsky’s ear,” and in the presence of Christopher Sorrentino, son of Gilbert, who has become a significant fiction writer in his own right, though without the same sense of a poet’s prose one saw in his father’s books.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
The best discussion
of torque in poetry
I’ve ever read
on Bush’s plan
to bomb Iran
Try to imagine
the worst possible jury
for a major literary prize
(What about Pound, Celine, Rimbaud,
The Greatest Living Author
(& it does mention Tom Raworth!)
When Bern Porter ran for governor
as a Republican
“Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers”
to be an issue
The Erotic Poetry Workshop
of Sexual Abuse
In praise of
Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven,
A festschrift for the late May Swenson
every one of whose
own books are now out of print
Count the clichés
”The Fall of Rome”
There are a few less
This might explain
The New York Times Book Review
The Blame the Reader
theory of literature
How to write
The impact of the
Not a big fan
of Mark McGowan
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Monday, February 26, 2007
I haven’t always read Elaine Equi’s poetry as enthusiastically as I seem to be doing right now. As is often the case for me with poems that harken back to the aesthetics of the
A bend in the light.
A dross in the drift.
A tilt in the storm.
A gleam in the ditch.
A grace in the gloom.
A kink in the sand.
A spring in the fire.
A lilt in the hand.
A snare in the common.
A hare in the shed.
A mesh in the fury.
A glare in the blurring.
A stretch in the arc.
A pulse in the bark.
A fork in the wave.
A heft in the sway.
It’s not that Equi isn’t doing anything beyond the “A in the B” exoskeleton of each line. The way rhyme changes position in the second, third & fourth stanzas is hardly accidental, especially announced as it in the second with it’s A-B-C-B end rhymes, poetry’s aural equivalent of a fingernail dragged along a blackboard. Even more interesting to my eye is the way the third stanza is the only one in the whole poem to admit two-syllable words, always in the last position in three of its four lines. For me, that’s the sensual moment of this poem, the real reason for reading it more than once.
An even more austere example of the device poem is “Etudes,” one of Equi’s newest pieces:
Autumn is a solitude.
Winter is a fortitude.
Spring is an altitude.
Summer is an attitude.
Summer is a multitude.
Autumn is an aptitude.
Winter is a quaalude.
Spring is a prelude.
Spring is a lassitude.
Summer is a longitude.
Autumn is a gratitude.
Winter is an interlude.
Winter is a beatitude.
Spring is a platitude.
Summer is a verisimilitude.
Autumn is a semi-nude.
The rules here are not difficult to tease out. Within each stanza, the seasons proceed in chronological order and the last season of each stanza must be the first season of the next. This is a minimalism of surface that is unfamiliar, really, in American writing, tho it has some relationship to the work of such postwar German poets as Helmut Heissenbüttel, Ernst Jandl or Eugen Gomringer. My immediate instinct reading this poem is to want to rewrite it, to make the first line Autumn is a nude and to move to the very last line Autumn is a solitude – thus to “complete” the poem with its strongest and “most organic” assertion – and to find some substitute, any substitute, for the jokey use of quaalude. And I might put all the an assertions into the same stanza.
It’s not that I haven’t employed structures that are, in their own way, almost as obsessively parallel as Equi’s – Sunset Debris is simply one question after another, 44 pages worth in the forthcoming UC Press edition of The Age of Huts (compleat); “Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps” deploys nothing but sentence fragments (mostly noun phrases); “Berkeley” is a poem composed of nothing but “I statements,” most of which were appropriated from other authors. But it’s not an accident that “
I am reminded of the way in which Clark Coolidge’s early masterwork, The Maintains, starts off with just this sort of parallelism, each line derived from a dictionary definition, tho presented in a manner that accentuates the prosodic elements more than the poem’s linguistic structures, as such. Or the formal devices Lyn Hejinian uses to structure Writing is an Aid to Memory and My Life. Or, for that matter, Joe Brainard’s I Remember or Eliot Weinberger’s anti-poem, What I Heard About Iraq.
But I’m also reminded, albeit in a very different manner, of all the poems “as book index,” “as table of contents,” “as menu,” all the list poems of any kind that have been written over the past 40 years and just how very few of them really do work, even in the slightest. They are, for the most part, a blot upon the landscape & a tell-tale sign of a weak poet.
One that is neither is Equi’s own “Table of Contents for an Imaginary Book”:
Up Close, Out Back, Down Under
The Drunken Voluptuary Workers in the Solarium
All the Yellow in the World
A Curse I Put on Myself
Three Sides of the Same Coin
Good Luck With Your Chaos
The Glass Stagecoach
In the Country of Mauve
Parrots and Dictators
Walking the Evening Back Home
A Twelve Course Dinner of Regret
The Gap Gatherer
Burning Down the Ocean
That is a book I would love to read. Even more important, it’s a poem in which every single line is fascinating, either in and of itself, or through juxtaposition. It doesn’t matter if we think of these as chapter titles, in fact it may work better if we forget that possibility altogether. I don’t think you need the premise that each of these identifies a poem, story or exposition to know that there is quite a bit behind every phrase. It accomplishes this simply through the language at hand.
Where Equi’s use of this sort of parallelism is at its most effective, tho, is in the one instance in Ripple Effect that clearly would not work in the same way if we did not already know that the device poem is one side of Equi’s work, so that we begin to listen for it virtually with the first line. The poem is entitled “Legacy”:
Now X is dead, so Y can be X.
And Z is dead, so A can be Z.
There’s no shame in becoming someone else.
You may be even better at it than they were.
At times Z got in the way of our idea of him.
Before X was X, he was probably somebody else too.
Here the allusion to the parallel device is what gives the opening of the poem its wry humor. This is a poem that can be read so many different ways (for example, read X as “Robert Creeley,” Z as “Louis Zukofsky;” then read it again with X as “Frank O’Hara,” Z as “Ted Berrigan”). Equi is using what we already know about her own writing to set up expectations here that operate precisely in the ways that she diverts or twists them. It’s a brilliant little poem, true & funny & maybe even a little sad all at once.
So ultimately I trust Equi in these poems, tho I might not trust another poet attempting the very same thing, because I think she shows just how these device poems (tho maybe I’d call that last one a false device poem) call up depths one could get to in poetry in no other way. But they force me to struggle with my own discomforts every single time.