Saturday, July 21, 2007
Friday, July 20, 2007
Ed Barrett, left, with Bill Corbett
I had the strangest experience with Ed Barrett’s “prose poem novel” (as it says on the rear jacket) Kevin White. I read the first half of it over two days, then got interrupted by what daily life was throwing at me, then couldn’t remember which backpack I’d put the book in so took a few more days before I picked it back up and finished it. But the experience was of two almost completely different books. During my first stint, I was definitely reading, feeling, seeing the prose poem on every page, even if it was a remarkably cohesive set of same. Here is the very first poem, from the book’s first (of nine) sets, “Kevin and John”:
I saw Kevin White’s mind disappearing into heaven as he bent down to pick up a tea bag John Wieners left on I-93 Southbound to remind oncoming traffic and the Big Dig that we have been set to – Boston, a mound of curly tight shiny law in the mind of Kevin our charge – and holding it like a ribbon to give a pretty girl, he placed it on his tongue and spoke to the Virgin Mary his language of tannin.
A single sentence prose poem that incorporates the former mayor of Boston, its most iconic poet, its most infamous “improvement” project, the Boston tea party, the Catholic church – dichtung don’t get much more condensare than that as Pound might have put it.
But when I returned to it, Kevin White had indeed turned into a novel, as elegant as anything plotted out by David Markson, each page as realized, both symbolically & visually, as Don DeLillo at his best. I went back & started over attempting to see it as I had at first, as a “collection” of separate poems around a series of recurring motifs, but I just couldn’t. Somehow the book had actually transformed itself. It was (is) a very spooky bit of magic.
For a guy born in
Barrett has, in fact, been in
In fact, he’s not really like either, or at least this book isn’t. At first I thought of Kevin White as being closer in its sensibility to the sort of booklength poem that takes advantage, say, of genre vocabulary & devices, rather the way James Sherry’s 1981 In Case deployed the language of the hardboiled detective novel. But really it’s the city, not a genre, that’s the organizing principle here:
I saw former Red Sox pitcher Bill "The Spaceman" Lee take something from a dumpster in front of the Corbett house. "Watch it!" said Lee, "dreams are not hard science like colonoscopy and laser hair removal-dreams don't even know your name, Mr. Wally Cox, and therefore they come to you but could just as easily visit someone else when all you wanted was to have your head patted like a child. And I am Bill Lee, making a voodoo doll of Carl Yazstremski whose dream came to me by mistake and said Yaz was living in the Corbett house, upstairs under the eaves." "Is Bill moving?" I asked, "What's he need a dumpster for, anyway?" "Ask him yourself, here he comes," shouted Bill Lee as he ran down
This is the lone poem in the final section of the book (&, in fact, is the final work Barrett read at Writers House as well, a good piece on which to close). The return here of John Wieners makes me realize that the deeper model in Kevin White, deeper than the novel, just might be the serial poetry of Jack Spicer, especially the run of great books that began with Heads of the Town Up to the Aether & ran through Book of Magazine Verse. That’s the kind of cohesion I sense page-to-page, section-to-section, tho with none of the acrid sarcasm that characterizes so much of Spicer’s use of public figures.
Oddly, as I write, Small Press Distribution has no copies of Kevin White on hand & the Pressed Wafer website hasn’t been updated even longer than that of the National Poetry Foundation, so it may well be that you can’t buy this book at the moment. Which is a shame. Hopefully this will be corrected shortly.
¹ Tho I note her body was buried where Bulger had already stocked two other bodies, one of them a drug trafficker & jewel thief by the name of Arthur “Bucky” Barrett.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
When I got back home late Wednesday, there were literally hundreds of emails waiting, one of which, from Kent Johnson, informed me of Dmitri Prigov’s death. There is something completely unsettling in the death of someone whom you think of as being “your own age,” as I do Prigov. In typing up that minuscule note for the blog below, I saved the file to the wrong name & thereby wiped out about three pages of links I’d plan to run today. If I had one that was important to you, please remind me & I’ll try to fit it in over the weekend.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Henry Rago (second from right) with the editorial staff of Poetry, 1956
L-R: Robert Mueller, Margaret Danner, Elizabeth Wright, Rago, Frederick Bock
Because I wanted to reread – for a third time – Roberto González Echevaría’s review of Clayton Eshleman’s translation of César Vallejo’s The Complete Poetry, I held onto the May 21st edition of The Nation.
Echevaria’s review isn’t that illuminating on the questions of translation – he nitpicks a few gotchas mostly & reminds us that, as a young scholar, he turned to Eshleman for help reading Wallace Stevens, assistance for which he is obviously grateful. But the bulk of his piece is a decent history of
Poem Windy and Continued
very cold. My small
and panicked last
kiss was like making
a noise to make sure
I was there.
mouth was only
space – a kiss
reversed and kept
inside to bite.
This off-kilter lyric – something Foust does as well as any living poet – actually appears on the corner of a page (the third of four) of Echevaría’s piece, as if insinuating that some of the spirit of Vallejo has sipped into American poetry. This is quite an amazing leap for a journal like The Nation, a well-intended, but culturally plodding, progressive publication whose curiously bellicose title reminds readers to this day that it was first started to support the northern cause during the Civil War. If you count Calvin Trillin’s regular feature as “deadline poet” among the op-ed pieces at the issue’s front (I seldom do, but this is one of Trillan’s better efforts), the May 21st issue has not one, but four different items related to poetry in a single edition. I’ve been reading The Nation since 1963 & I can’t even remember a solstice books issue that did that before.
But consider Trillan’s immortal lines, which begin
So who ever thunk
That Tenet’s “slam dunk”
Was really the chunk
Of intelligence junk
That got our boys sunk
In quagmire gunk?
Then turn to the hapless works by this year’s Discovery winners, Paula Bohince, Darcie Dennigan, Joseph Heithaus and Melissa Range, chosen by Mark Jarman, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Phillis Levin (which “associate coordinator Ellen Paschen helped to screen”). Here are the opening lines of “Green”:
The child affixes one of her little pictures to my refrigerator.
She asks, Can you detect the radiation?
There is a house, one tree, and grass in dark slashes. A sun
shining. Beneath, in her child letters, she has written
At kindergarten they must be having nuclear energy week.
This is one of those “excuse me” moments in literature, in which writing so padded that it suffocates thought: “little pictures,” “child letters,” really? One can only imagine how the losers of this competition must write if something like this leaked through. At least in the first line of the second stanza there is that string of single syllable words leading up to the two-syllable shining to suggest that something is occurring cognitively. But what we have here is the start of a dumbed-down allegorical narrative that mostly reveals the poet not to be a serious thinker about radiation, about children, or about poetry.
At least Darcie Dennigan spares us the tub-thumping metrics offered by
His every hair and shred
sheds two uses, or more, for our daily bread.
Good sidekick, stock stand-by,
he helps us tear the ground and haul the rye.
Too much sweetgrass made him lame,
or we did; to much bridle made him tame,
which we did. Nails in the foot
mean he’s not good-for-naught;
disease in the hoof, he’s a no-shoe
no-show on the field. It’s a no-go,
when he founders on the clock:
he’ll go free, barefooted, to the block.
And so on for another eight sterling couplets.
Paula Bohince at least appears to be writing after the birth of
Stiff as a fish
in a boat, I lie in the grove
inhaling dirt’s pepper, my cheek
wet against stubble,
eye to mineral eye,
tracing the bodies of fish
onto wood’s floor – infinity in mud,
curves of hourglass
until I cannot hear
The poet re-enacting her childhood: here’s a cliché that really needs to be revisited. At least she has some idea of line that is not stiff as a fish in a boat.
Alongside a discussion of
Green False Hellebore
We must warn the good sheep: Dear pregnant ewes,
stay away from the stout, erect, unbranched
stems, pleated leaves, flowers B inconspicuous
clusters, green or greenish white. I blanched
at what they do to you, your little lamb.
If you eat false hellebore on the fourteenth
day of gestation, expect your new ram
to be monkey-faced, cycloptic, come a month
early or die. Really, aside from weakness,
trembling, the stomach ache you’ll feel, you’ll give
birth to truth, small brained, defected, helpless,
just for taking what you thought sheep might live
on. This is nature’s justice, something cruel
to chew: we’re empty headed beasts, poison’s fool.
Just wait till he starts writing as tho he were born after 1892. This at least is worth reading, tho frankly there’s less to think about than meets the ear. It’s ultimately a set piece intended to display the verbal dexterity of the poet. That there is some to display is its saving grace.
Between these four selections, we have an interesting phenomenon, The Nation displaying the very different directions of contemporary poetry, from something completely new (Foust) & groundbreaking work of the 20th century (Vallejo), to poetry that imagines that, by simple denial, it can erase the writing of the last 150 years, first as tragedy (the Discovery four), then as farce (Trillan). I’m reminded that John Palattella recently replaced Grace Shulman as poetry editor of The Nation, and it’s his presence that I credit for the Foust, maybe even Echevaría’s review of the
In the years before I became the executive editor of the Socialist Review (SR), I used to marvel at the breadth of that publication, which had been started in the very early 1970s under the name of Socialist Revolution to be a place where the veteran on-campus organizers of the 1960s might discuss the theoretical implications of their post-school work “in the real world.” There could be a discussion of class in the sugar industry in the
So what I see in this really peculiar single issue of The Nation is something not that terribly different. I don’t think John Palattella is necessarily a post-avant type personally, my sense is that he’s trying to be broader than that, but he is somebody who reads, intelligently so (based on the reviews I’ve seen), the likes of Ted Berrigan & Allen Ginsberg, something that a poetry editor at The Nation hasn’t done since the days when Denise Levertov was there in the 1960s. And the result may be that we are going to get, at least for a time, this sort of quirky, uneven coverage as the journal presents a wider view simply because different editors think very differently.
I’m reminded that the one brief renaissance in the history of Poetry magazine came not during the years when Ezra Pound was periodically breaking through the deadened crust of work Harriet Monroe preferred, but rather the latter half of Henry Rago’s tenure in the 1960s. During the first several years of his editorship, Rago was the same sort of predictable
The simple presence of Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, Koch, Mac Diarmid, Olson, Rexroth & Zukofsky in this list was revolutionary in 1962. But it merely was the piercing of the veil of benign neglect with which the Pound-Williams tradition had previously been treated, and it was, frankly, tokenistic. Thirty months later, the April-May 1965 double issue devoted to works-in-progress, long poems & sequences actually reflected the world more as it was. Its contributors included, again in alphabetical order (and this is the complete list), Wendell Berry, Carruth, Creeley, Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Galway Kinnell, Koch, Levertov, Olson, David Posner, Adrienne Rich, Ernest Sandeen, Sexton, Gary Snyder, Tomlinson, Gael Turnbull, Theodore Weiss & Philip Whalen. The issue feels as tho its 20 – maybe 50 – years more contemporary than the one less than three years earlier. Indeed, more contemporary than any issues of Poetry that have been published in the past 20 years.
Since the Poetry Foundation got its boatload of cash from a sheltered pharmaceutical heir a few years back, the organization has gone through some convulsions that suggest that it too is having some of the same sorts of pressures straining on it that we may be seeing in The Nation. The website for Poetry is already much more interesting than the journal, but there have been some token attempts even in the publication not to seem completely out of it. This is all to the good, regardless of how incomplete & conflicted these little moments might be.
I’m reminded of Gerald Graff’s refrain to “teach the conflicts,” which I’ve always thought made sense in terms of curriculum, albeit unless one is team teaching with somebody quite opposite one’s own inclinations, one always teaches these conflicts from a particular point of view. There is, after all, a scenario in which the post-avants represent the barbarians at the gates that are disrupting the idylls of quietude & therefore must be repelled. And it’s not like I don’t have a pony, if not a sheep, in this race. So barring the emergence of saintly editors a la the later Rago, perhaps the very most we can hope for in our more public literary institutions is what we find in the May 21st issue of The Nation, that the rag will actually embody those very conflicts, all sides.
To readers who don’t pay much attention to poetry, this may feel incoherent. There is almost no way to connect the dots between Trillan & Vallejo, Foust & the Discovery 4, that is going to be readily accessible to anyone not immersed in contemporary poetics. That in itself is probably a good thing, since it shows The Nation demonstrating what anthologies like those by Garrison Keillor do not, that it’s not all one thing, but many, diverse, conflicting ones. That Vallejo’s own conflicts over his own poetry & its relation to language, nation, politics, aesthetics are no less tortured than those of any thinking person today.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Given the rather mixed & muted reviews it’s received, I was surprised to discover that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HP5) is the best motion picture in this series to date. It achieves this, one of my sons avers, by cutting back everything that doesn’t contribute to its primary narrative drive – the battle between Harry & Voldemort to see into and control one another’s mind. It’s an epic battle from the very first scene to the last. It may well be that there’s much more going on in the books than in the films – I’ve found the novels mostly unreadable, but I’m hardly the target audience – but as films the series has been, at best, uneven, going through four directors: Chris Columbus (numbers one & two), Mike Newell (HP3) & Y tu mamá también director Afonso Cuarón (HP4), before turning to veteran TV director David Yates for this film & the next. Steve Kloves, who wrote the script for the first four films took a break on this one in order to work on a separate project, a script for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but has already signed on to write the next two. So HP5 will turn out to be the one film in the sequence written by Michael Goldenberg, who also penned the screenplays for Contact & Peter Pan. I remember after the completion of the second film that Columbus swore that the personal toll of doing two such complicated films back to back was beyond his capacity as a human, & I take him at his word. But this kind of shuffling of directors has a lot to do with the limits of these films, since the one controlling vision that remains constant throughout is that of J.K. Rowling, who is at two removes from the final product.
The other constant, of course, are the actors, particularly the kids – we are, after all, into our second Dumbledore. To a degree that has not been the case in any of the previous films, the younger thespians are a strength of HP5. Emma Watson remains the best of the three lead actors, tho her role in this film is more abbreviated than in any of the four previous ones¹, but Rupert Grint – a lock to play James Bond in another 25 years – and Daniel Radcliffe have likewise gone from being kids in a film to serious actors, as have several of the secondary child actors, most notably Matthew Lewis’ as Neville Longbottom, a key figure here, and James & Oliver Phelps as the Weasley twins.
One of the more interesting subtexts of this series has been watching these youngsters emerge as adults, still a work-in-progress. Radcliffe has gone from being a fresh-faced boy with a pretty typical, almost generic face into an adult with an interesting & somewhat unusual look. He’s visibly shorter than most of his peers, Lewis & the twins in particular, & almost certainly doesn’t look like what a casting director might have picked to play Harry Potter now. But the role is so completely his that it’s no problem & his divergence from “
This is the intersection between film & time, something that has fascinated both photographers & their critics almost since the dawn of daguerreotypes. We see a star, say, Judy Garland frozen at a particular moment in her adolescence in The Wizard of Oz, even knowing full well what a sodden mess she later made of her adult life, but in this scene, this film, she is for all purposes perfect. The intersection works other ways as well. Think of how many times in recent years you’ve seen some old film with a pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen in it, playing some sleazy young thug. You may have seen the film, or parts of it, a half dozen times on the telly, never before paying attention to this secondary role whose actor seems to have been selected for his ability to convey sliminess. Or the next time you see To Kill a Mockingbird, note Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, or catch Harrison Ford as a young officer in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now, or both Ford and Duvall in minor spots, Duvall technically uncredited even, in Francis Ford Coppola’s great detective drama, The Conversation.
It doesn’t need to be film, or cinema, to create these effects. Any photograph of Abraham Lincoln, for example, carries this effect, or any still of JFK & Jackie in the convertible in
HP5, as the critics have all noted, is a much darker film. Potter is, as he says, “angry all the time.” Ron Weasley has his own surly moments, as does Nigel Longbottom. It’s the dark night of the teen years, only in this fable the dysfunctionality of the family (fabulously figured by Sirius Black’s literal family tree, many of its faces burned or blackened by scandal & conflict, the worst yet to come) is weighted with the whole axis of good & evil. In the portraits that invariably decorate the walls of this film, old Hogwarts faculty, dead ancestors, even kittens move & blink & meow. So also in the aging of its cast, this curious & flawed film franchise manages to figure its most powerful message, that of time.
¹ Steve Kloves has described Hermione as the character he most enjoys “writing for,” suggesting that Watson will play larger roles again in the final two films.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
back in Haifa
An economist argues
the ideal length
is 14 years
& teaching English
ought to review
& Ed Foster
Emerson + O’Hara
A very silly
on Zbignew Herbert
A review of
E. Ethelbert Miller
& other professions
David Levi Strauss:
Images & magic
Seeing Richard Tuttle
A review of
with a terrific