Saturday, September 29, 2007

 

Ron Silliman

West Coast Readings

 

Tuesday, October 2

5:30 to 7:00 PM

Mills Hall Living Room

Mills College, Oakland

5000 MacArthur Bld

Free & open to the public

 

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Wednesday, October 3

8:00 PM

Meese Auditorium

Center for the Visual Arts

Southern Oregon University

Ashland, Oregon

Free ($5 donation suggested)

& open to the public

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Friday, September 28, 2007

 


Jimmy Rollins is not just
the best shortstop in the NL,
he deserves to be the MVP

159 games into the major league baseball season – with just three days remaining – and the Philadelphia Phillies finally are tied for first place in the National League East. For the first time all year. Perhaps they will make it to this year’s play-offs, something they have not done once since I arrived here in 1995, or perhaps not. But regardless of the ultimate outcome, the 2007 Phillies represent one of the strangest & most fascinating experiments in the history of the game.

Baseball & poetry have a long, complementary history in the United States. Baseball is almost the official sport of poets, dating back at least to the writing of William Carlos Williams, if not to Whitman. Jack Spicer’s baseball poems are among his very best, and even Tom Clark has written eloquently of the late Roberto Clemente. Baseball’s sense of tradition for tradition’s sake even closely rhymes with the impulses of the School of Quietude, content forever to replicate this 19th century past-time. When change has come, it has largely been through expansion. Where I grew up with 16 major league teams, there are now over 30. 450+ creative writing programs have churned out thousands of MFAs. The lone publication in Ploughshares and a single small press volume is the poetry equivalent of the September call-up in baseball, when teams expand their rosters after the end of the minor league seasons around Labor Day. For more than a few ballplayers (and for more than a few poets), that’s a career.

Baseball was the only thing my grandfather and I could discuss without devolving into a baleful clash of generations. He worked most of his adult life at a paper recycling plant in Emeryville (there is a condo highrise there now), and for a time Chick Gandil, first baseman of the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox, was a plumber there. One local Berkeley kid, Billy Martin, grew up in the immediate vicinity of SPD Books (which didn’t yet exist) and went on to become a solid major league player, then manager. My grandfather taught me to play the game in Bushrod Park in North Oakland, the same field on which he had learned – another kid who did so, far better than I, was Rickey Henderson, the finest leadoff hitter in baseball history. One guy from my high school, Ron Hansen, was the major league rookie of the year in 1960 and had a fifteen year career in the bigs. He’s still working in the game as the Phillies major league advance scout. When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, I was just 11 years old, the perfect age to fixate on the local team. Between Willie Mays & Orlando Cepeda that first year, Willie McCovey the next, Juan Marichal soon thereafter, the Giants of that era were one of the great franchises of the last half century. The longest homerun I ever saw in person was hit by Giants outfielder Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner – it cleared the rightfield wall in old Seals Stadium, the minor-league ballpark at 16th and South Van Ness, ending well into the park across 16th street. The Giants of that era did everything but win a World Series & had McCovey’s ninth-inning line drive in game seven of the 1961 series gone a foot or so higher, just beyond the reach of Yankees second baseman Bobbie Richardson, the J’ints would have accomplished that as well. The team’s only problem in those years was that, beyond Marichal (and Gaylord Perry for awhile, Sad Sam Jones for a year, Jack Sanford & Mike McCormick for brief periods), they lacked pitching.

According to baseball lore, and baseball lore is powerful juju, pitching is 90 percent of the game. There are dozens of clichés that all say pretty much the same thing: good pitching always beats good hitting.

But this year the Phils, the team with the longest history in the same city and with the same name & only one World Series Championship to show for it, have put together one of the most productive lineups in the history of the game. But they also have perhaps the worst pitching in the majors. It’s almost a schizophrenic dissociation of the two parts of the game, so dramatically different that it looks like a middle school science experiment. With the exception of third base, where the team has had a not entirely successful three-way platoon going all year, the lineup from catcher all the way around the infield and across the outfield all the way to right is perhaps as strong – if not stronger – than any single team I’ve seen in my lifetime. They remind me more than anything of the mid-1950s New York Yankees or perhaps the Big Red Machine of a couple decades later. Five players have more than 20 home runs each. They have last year’s Most Valuable Player at first base in Ryan Howard & Jimmy Rollins – J-Rol in local parlance – at shortstop figures to be a top vote-getter this year. He deserves to win that award. They have the best second baseman in baseball, the best really since Joe Morgan was still a Red. Their center fielder made the All-Star team, their left fielder has 30 home runs, and right field has seen two regulars, in serial fashion, Shane Victorino (“The Flyin’ Hawai’ian”) & Jayson Werth work so well that the aforementioned center fielder is almost certainly going to be gone after this season, freeing up big dollars so that the Phils can afford to sign Howard to a long term deal and begin to address the problem of pitching.

Ah, but their pitching. While most teams carry 12 pitchers these days, the Phils have had only three all year who have been consistently reliable – starters Cole Hamels & Kyle Kendrick & closer Brett Myers. They've used maybe 30 different players as pitchers all season, once using 13 in one game (albeit some a pinch runners & even pinch hitters - it's what happens when you have to carry that many arms). Hamels & Myers have both been on the disabled list (DL) for part of the year, and Kendrick started the season in the minors where he wasn’t even rated among the Phils’ top ten prospects. Myers was the opening day starting pitcher, but then last year’s closer, Tom “Flash” Gordon, started the season hurt. So Myers got pulled into the pen and Jon Lieber, the team’s “ace” just two years ago, was brought back out of the bullpen to start. Lieber was soon injured himself and was out almost all year. The two big money pitchers the Phils acquired last winter – Freddy Garcia & Adam Eaton – have been similar busts. Garcia’s been on the DL most of the season – you can see this is a theme – while Eaton has the worst Earned Run Average in the league. During the first part of the season, he would have one decent start followed by a dreadful one. As it wore on, however, the ratio has gone to one good start followed by two bad ones. The one other starter remaining from the opening day rotation, Jamie Moyer, is ancient by baseball standards, 44. He is the only major leaguer left from the same rookie crop that included Barry Bonds. Moyer’s a smart junkballer & obviously a good influence on the younger players, but he no longer has great stamina. Although he grew up nearby in Bucks County, Moyer basically wilted from the Philadelphia heat around the beginning of August and has been pitching on fumes since then. The other starter in the current rotation is Kyle Lohse, whom the Phils picked up from Cincinnati, a bad team that concluded that Lohse couldn’t pitch for them. Tho Lohse has only gotten only two wins in his last nine starts, seven were what baseball insiders like to call quality starts, games in which the starting pitcher gets through six innings giving up no more than three runs. The Phils also acquired J.C. Romero, another player being dumped by his original team, as a relief pitcher who has settled comfortably into the seventh-inning relief pitcher the team has needed all season. Two of the team’s other relievers, Jose Mesa & Alphonse Alfonseco, are one-time major league closers (Mesa once with the Phillies) who bounce around from team to team these days, bolstering the bullpen, then getting released when they hit a bad patch.

This, as you can see, is the sort of pitching staff you might expect from an expansion team, one newly added to the league. Somehow, this patchwork staff has managed to enable the team to finally gain a share of first place, with just three games remaining in the season. It’s quite amazing really.

This has been a year in which no team has dominated the National League – at this late date, no single team has clinched a playoff berth in any of the league’s three divisions. When you realize that the Phils have blown perhaps 20 games this year in late innings that they should have won because their relievers couldn’t hold a lead or because manager Charlie Manuel left the starter in longer than he should have out of lack of confidence in whatever would come next, you begin to understand that this team – which also has won some four dozen games in come-from-behind fashion – is the one that should have finished 15 games ahead of the rest of the league. Instead, they’ve struggled all season long. It was really just three weeks ago, when they swept a series from the Mets, then did it again just a week later, that the Phils have begun to look like they could do this.

Supposedly, the wild card team is the one that “shouldn’t have made it” to the playoffs, because it was not strong enough to finish first in its own division. Yet in recent years, wild card teams have had a better than average chance of taking the whole enchilada. That’s usually because they’re performing at playoff intensity for two, maybe three weeks before the playoffs even begin, while the teams that coasted to a division championship find they have a hard time ramping up to the level needed for baseball’s so-called second season. The Phils, who have a shot at the wild card as well as the National League championship, have been at that white-hot intensity level now for the better part of a month. The obvious smart money would say that if they make it to the playoffs, they should be roadkill against a better pitching staff in the first round, and ditto for each succeeding one. If the Phils should go beyond the first round, it will upset a whole lot of long-term baseball junkies, stats geeks and more than a few bookies. If they win the whole thing, it's the end of the world as we know it. It’s sort of like asking, can Frankenstein’s monster not just stumble around in the graveyard, but hop into this jet plane, glance at the instrument panel & fly? It’s going to be fun finding out.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

 

While the little tempest in a comments stream over the use of source materials was raging, or at least microraging, in reaction to David Giannini’s redeployment of other poet’s first lines, I went to see a film that raised some of the same issues, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, a musical tale of love in the 1960s set entirely to songs written (but not here performed) by the Beatles. As an attempt to reinvent the musical for our time, it’s basically Hair with better music as one droll critic put it, a shadow of a film alongside John Carney’s brilliant Once. It certainly is the most political film I ever saw where the audience was required to check its left brain at the door. If you can do that, it’s a visually stunning & often quite wry music video that trots through its paint-by-numbers narrative of the love between Jude & Lucy, Maxwell’s unfortunate adventure in Vietnam, Prudence’s arrival through the bathroom window & Sadie’s reunion with her guitarist Jo-Jo. There is a lot of historical revisionism that is just slightly askew for the purposes of avoiding trademark & libel laws – Strawberry records, Dr. Geary instead of Leary, Café Huh? instead of Café Wha, Students for a Democratic Revolution (SDR), that sort of thing. There is even a scene at Columbia when the 1968 student strikers are being busted & hustled out of the administration building where one student with giant thick glasses is (or at least wants to be) a fair copy of then-Columbia student leader David Shapiro. Bono’s turn as Ken Kesey (whom he plays more akin to a Stewart Brand) under the name of Dr. Robert is funny, as is one song in particular where Joe Cocker plays multiple characters. Some of the performances are terrific but somewhere along the line you realize that you could do this to just about any set of songs, Dylan for example, the Doors, My Chemical Romance, Tony Bennett, it doesn’t have to be the Beatles – it’s basically David Giannini for cinema, or more accurately a pop application of Oulipo constraints.

By pinning so much of its narrative to actual events of the period – Kerouac is mentioned by name, Jo-Jo is propelled to leave Detroit after the riots there & the student radicals blow themselves up in a New York brownstone turned bomb factory a la the Weather Underground, before the final triumph of the heroes’ performance atop a New York City roof – Across the Universe (the title of a Beatles song that has grown in importance in its role in their canon, thanks largely to Rufus Wainwright) seems almost anxious about its sources. Source anxiety is, I think, an interesting, if curious, phenomenon. Giannini criticized my review in part because I omitted quoting his two-paragraph prefatory note with its obligatory

All quotations used in this work fall under the ‘fair use’ convention, but remain the copyright of the individual authors…. A specific intention is to honor individual poets in new community. (Ital. in the original)

Lately, I’ve been seeing source commentary in a lot of books of poems & not always where I would think to find it – Jean Day’s Enthusiasm: Odes & Otium is one such, Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets is another. Giannini lists all of his sources & one of the games you can play with his book is “guess where that came from.” And, at the behest of my editors, even The Alphabet will include a few terse notes, albeit mostly having to do with the dates of composition. Still, I had to track down in Paris the woman I had dinner with at Emeril’s in New Orleans in the early 1990s to verify a date.

But asking for source data on a 900 page manuscript like The Alphabet is not so far from inviting a 2,000 page response. I suppose some day some enterprising grad student is going to comb through Ketjak and identify just how many sentences there were lifted directly from Quine – it could be done. But I’m not in the slightest inclined to think that doing so would tell you any more about the poem. In that same vein, the various annotations for works like Ulysses, The Cantos or Finnegans Wake always strike me as telling me a little about what the author may have been thinking about around the time of composition, but they are almost mute on what the works themselves actually say. Annotating, reading & interpreting are, after all, three different acts. Everyone who has ever written about 2197 has done so with a sense of a science fiction framework & what that might mean to those texts. I can’t think of anyone who has as yet noticed that the number is 13 cubed, which means that it represents the total of sentences in the work. From the perspective of reading, does that matter? I suspect not.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

 

Kay Rosen, Blurred

Transcendental
one-liners

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Talking with
Pattie McCarthy

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An obit of
Bill Griffiths

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A fractal reading
of
Spring and All

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Maurice Blanchot
at 100

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A profile of
Kay Ryan

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Alan Wald’s
proletarian modernism

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Talking with
Stuart Hall

Rivington Place

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An English view
of Muldoon’s ascent

& Condé Nast

(More Irish need apply,
indeed)

Muldoon
on writing songs

“Most of the Time”
sung by Muldoon’s band,
Rackett
(MP3)

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Books-by-the-foot

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Actor portrays
Bukowski
in solo show

What memorial
for Bukowski?

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A poet’s walk
already in
Los Angeles

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Lee Herrick
& the
SoQ tradition
of Valley Poets

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The social value
of writing

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Talking with
Staceyann Chin

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Poetry & film
in Bollywood

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Poets & perverts

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Remembering
Tamizh Oli

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Translating
Kamal Khujandi

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This week’s
death-of-a-bookstore article
concerns Librería Lectorum

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Borders in the U.K.
is bought

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The British Library
fights for funding

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What Shakespeare
looked like
as a boy

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The Kenyon Review
launches
literary fest

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Two poets profile
their own work

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Learning English

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Which is the takata
& which the malooma?

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The home of
James Whitcomb Riley

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Comparing Cate Marvin
to Hopkins & Yeats

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In search
only of
uplifting arts

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Mark Strand
returns to
Salt Lake City

While
Richard Wilbur
reads at
Bryn Mawr

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The value
of an agent

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In the U.K., dismay
that a Pamela Anderson clone
outsells
the entire Man Booker shortlist

(Note the chart in that
first article in the Telegraph,
showing that five
of the six Booker finalists
have sold just 10,000 books
between them)

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Black women philosophers

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The designers hired for
the “new Barnes

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MassMoCA wins
right to show
disputed installation

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Nan Goldin
photo
(owned by Elton John)
busted as porn

§

Germaine Greer
on
Jane Bown

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Mr. Freud
has a lady
on the couch

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Philip Glass’s epic
Appomattox
debuts in SF
October 5

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Sasha Frere-Jones
on
Miles Davis’
Complete On the Corner Sessions

§

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

 

My general reading style is to be in the middle of ten to twelve books at one time, switching back & forth as the whim strikes me. It can take me literally years to finish a major work – The Cantos, for example, or more recently Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts in its various volumes – and usually I think I get more out of a work from the prolonged engagement. Don’t ask me how long it’s going to take to finish Ted Berrigan’s Collected Poems – at the rate I’m going, I’ll be lucky to get it done before my 70th birthday. I intend to enjoy every second.

But occasionally a book pulls me in to the exclusion of all others, demanding that I read it straight through. The sensation almost feels like a drug. I find myself looking forward to my next possible moment with the book and experience intense pangs of sadness once I’ve completed it, as though a friend has passed. I put everything else aside and go with the experience. If I come across one book like this per year, I’m extremely fortunate.

Jean Day’s Enthusiasm:Odes & Otium is just such a volume. Reading it is one of those knock-down take-the-top-of-your-head-off experiences, exactly as Tom Mandel promised when he started raving about the volume to the Grand Piano collective:

It's one of the best books of poetry I've read in a decade;I'm blown away by it.

Tom is exactly right. Enthusiasm contains 13 poems organized into an introductory piece, plus two major sequences, the first, “Odes,” consisting of nine poems, the second & longer, “Otium,” consisting of three works. It’s an index of just how unsettling this book can be that two of the first descriptions of the book I came across put such a different emphasis on the balance of its composition:

The work is divided into two parts, the first descriptively titled “Odes” and the second “Otium,” a Latin word meaning peace, ease, repose, which occurs as a leitmotif in one of Horace’s most famous odes.

That’s Lyn Hejinian on the rear cover of the book itself. The publisher’s website casts it differently:

A book of nine "newfangled" American odes together with three extended poems written in the tragi-comic intersection between leisure and work.

Neither depiction strikes me as being entirely correct. “Odes” consists of nine poems, eight of them in the four pages or under category. The ninth ode, however, “Hat Schism,” consists of eight chunky paragraphs printed one to a page, their distinctness underscored by a two-line drop cap to start off each paragraph, but then later undercut by the fact that all paragraphs but the last conclude with an em dash —

Here is the first stanza from one of the earlier odes, the second one, “Prose of the World Order”:

This blue
is nothing but elastic
sound everlasting a relapse
improbably neither vegetable
nor animal
not even personal but
sonorous as lexical hash
hypothetically
a novella by a fellow guest here
left finally dead
as matter might
stick to a wall
virgin in shape or exquisitely
scrawled
the gist of which is
We exist in places
otherwise strange and probably
impassible.
Yet here
yours is not the first face
to appear
surrounded upright
on two feet awake
stunned from the sleep of a Nobody

This stanza is the instant I knew that this book had hooked me. The variation in these free verse lines is as exact and muscular as any I’ve read in ages – just hear the contrast between virgin in shape or exquisitely and scrawled. There is also a palpable balance here between intelligence & humor – these are generally sunny works, much more so than my memory of Day’s earlier books. My immediate reaction, reading the above, was that I wanted stanzas like this to go on forever. And in general, tho Day plays with line length & works that let go of the left margin, they generally do, at least for the first eight odes. Here’s the first stanza of the title poem, “Enthusiasm”:

Ideas presuppose us
not the head
hand or facture
What is facture
the wander of two
shooting the blue
breeze figured in friends
Lull and Hum
Clam and Grass
ear to foot and finger
to ground the word
world
haunting the sky red
and blinking
comes disclaimed the size
our bodies are
plus one
hysterically numbered
now standing in
a short row
whose tune lasts
til newts disband
or originality proves
our idea
in the first place

The organizing term in this passage is world, already italicized, positioned so that you can’t miss the echo of word immediately prior any more than you could miss it in the title five odes earlier (there it was the schema of prose that carried the implication). That other italicized term, facture, of course means execution, especially in the sense of performance, the execution of an art object, of which this work is again setting out a brilliant demonstration. Whether this passage & ode is, as I read it, about the creation of families, the idea of family, politically charged concept in these perilous times but when was it ever not thus, or something else altogether really is not the point here nearly so much as the heightened awareness that occurs throughout this structure of language at play.

“Hat Schism,” the ninth ode, feels at least partially like a bridge to the three longer pieces gathered under “Otium” that make up the greater two-thirds of this manuscript. Here is just the first paragraph or page, sans the drop cap which I've been unable to reproduce here:

For I would not be a slave if I could help it under a hat the lack of whose shade would leave me smart naked in the rain. For what I want are dry pants and an early start tomorrow. I hate the unreaped fields, its over-reasoned surplus now doffing to a dream of opposability. For it is an indolent sinking sun falling on the fox I admire alone in hiding. Do I sing too loud? I am a child who’s forgotten all about it, but having heard the forbidden anthem begin to long for home again myself. For any god’s quantity of fiddlers you may make up a feather bed I’d be glad to lie in. For I am composed of calculation and little holes. For this land is my limb. Such are the unravished prisoners the larks these states—

You can hear almost instantly the change in tone, even more the shift in focus, created by these hard stops of periods. Where the verse stanzas of the poems before do not posit a persona per se, these paragraphs sure do, with a wry satirical hand.

The three poems of “Otium” – the title is Latin & Hejinian on the book jacket describes it as meaning “peace, ease, repose,” where Merriam-Webster Online defines it as “leisure with dignity” (are these the inverse of poetry?) – play with this same range between abstraction & comedic immanence, each one quite different in its approach. Here is the third (of 44) sections of “Romantic Fragments,” each printed as with “Hat Schism” one to a page:

on the way to ear. The crude cosmopolitan is


like me, finite on the way to infinity, is why
the boomerang wind (there, I said it again), is how
revolution hates eruptions
of the past, commuter train
in its own mouth. My [illegible]
ukulele’s broke on a North
we neither know nor lament
since suffering the cruelty of rust, the zip
fastener acts out its increments, ever smaller
coded instructions spooling inside her

Each fragment has a title like the above, a line in italics in which one sentence ends & another begins, tho to say that it actually continues in the ten-line stanza that follows often requires, as here, something of a leap of faith. The idea that this first line is a title is itself a presumption, one that I revised about halfway through these dense (albeit compact) structures, seeing it finally as the link between the prior fragment and the one that follows. That’s all but impossible in this one, in that the second fragment actually ends with a question mark, one of only two to actually end with what appears to be the conclusion of a sentence. The first phrase in the title of the next piece – the world presupposes. – neither verifies nor negates a connection. A difficult balance.

What’s really happening here are these serpentine sentences whose logic often gives way right at the line break. It’s like reading a Faulkner for the 22nd century. Cumulatively, “Romantic Fragments” is every bit as sensuous a reading experience as “Odes,” tho in a very different way. But if the first eight odes tend toward a stylistic center, the three works of “Otium” are each very different. The poem “Otium” itself replicates some of the typographic features of the final ode – paragraphs that begin with drop caps, but here without any punctuation whatsoever save for words in the Text that appear in capital letters and Boldfaced, maybe a dozen per paragraph. The effect is lush, witty and often dazzling, but run together rather than giving each paragraph it’s own page, the piece feels shorter in comparison to the others than it really is. In comparison, the final sequence, “Sixteen Lucky Dreams (Epical Pictures),” offers one stanza works, each with its own spelled out number and title (always in parentheses), presenting in what appears to be lyric form the same line/stanza relationships that governed the book’s first pages. While the 16 vary in length, they hew close to the 14-line benchmark of the sonnet, and often entail some pointed use of quotation marks. Possibly because it was the line/stanza work of the first poems that sucked me through the looking glass of this book, I find myself tremendously heartened by the return to this relationship here in the volume’s final pages. It gives the work a sense both of closure & of optimism.

Optimism, indeed Enthusiasm, are not words I would normally associate with Day’s past writing, which has always struck me as having a dark thread. The experience of this book is not unlike, say, that of first reading Opening of the Field in the early 1960s when Robert Duncan, already a well-known poet, kicked it up a notch to produce three great books in a row. I have no idea just how far Jean Day can take her new work, but I do feel that she’s operating now on a whole new level. It’s thrilling to read.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

 

Warning: spoilers abound below.

Rather by accident, no, entirely by accident, I found myself watching what I take to be the most profound film meditation on the meaning of marriage I’ve ever seen, 51 Birch Street, directed by Doug Block on the subject of his parents & their relationship. Like a lot of indie documentarians, Block is one of these guys who wanders around filming everything, so when he starts shooting footage of Mike & Mina & the rest of his family around his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, hardly anyone thinks twice about it. As one of his sisters puts it on a “response” film included on the DVD, even when Doug tells them this is going to be a film, their reaction is “this is a really expensive home movie.” At that point in his career, he’s directed just two other films that got to release, neither of them a serious hit, even by documentary standards. One senses that Doug’s father is a little perplexed at this non-career his son seems to have chosen, tho this is underscored by the fact that Doug & his father barely know how to talk to one another. Doug’s real emotional connection is to his mother, Mina, an intense, beautiful woman even as she pushes into her eighties, while his mechanical engineer dad seems almost a stereotype of the distant, aloof parent.

Then three things occur that completely change this not-very-promising drama. First, Mina dies rather suddenly, after a three-week bout of pneumonia. We quickly realize that both Doug and his two older sisters had simply assumed that it would be Mike who went first. They’re not at all sure what this will portend for their father.

He, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a step. Mike takes a trip from his suburban home in Port Washington, NY, to Florida, where, just three months after Mina’s death, he calls the kids to announce that he’s connected up with his old secretary of 40 years ago and that they are now planning to get married.

The kids are completely aghast. Has dad been cheating on their mother? Has he been doing so for 40 years? They’re nowhere through their own grieving processes & suddenly Mike shows up with “Kitty or Carol or whatever her name is,” they go through a wedding at the temple that features a 12-second on-screen kiss – “eleven seconds longer than I’d ever seen him kiss my mother” – and begin to pack up the house in Port Washington, which they’re selling in order to return permanently to Florida. The children are completely stunned.

It’s during the moving process that Mike decides to hand over Mina’s diaries to his son Doug, having already agreed that Doug can “help” with the move by filming and interviewing him as they pack – the largest single part of the motion picture consists of these conversations. The diaries take up three file-drawer sized cartons, and consist over both handwritten and typed diaries going back 40 years. It’s a massive writing project, thousands of pages.

Does Doug really want to read them? Would you? He sticks his nose in them just far enough to realize that they’re loaded with commentary about the marriage itself – it’s Mina’s primary subject as a suburban stay-at-home housewife – and that she is none too glowing in her descriptions of Mike and the marriage. Doug, who (also in the vein of indie documentarians) supports himself by doing wedding videos, asks the rabbi of one of the services if he can come talk to him. Should he read these deeply personal documents? He also talks with Mina’s best friend, Natasha, who tells him emphatically that he should. The rabbi agrees.

Reading them is a revelation. The happy marriage of his parents turns out not to have been happy at all. Mina is angry & often bitter in her descriptions of it. She goes into therapy and has a deep transference with her therapist, whom she literally begs (to no avail) to sleep with her. She has an affair with one of Mike’s friends, but takes care that there is no evidence in the diary to indicate which friend that might have been. (We later meet some of them at a farewell party for Mike at the temple & wonder if maybe one of these octogenarians could have been Mina’s secret lover.) Mike & Mina discuss divorce, but never act on it. Mina even writes about Kitty, decades ago, wondering if her relationship with Mike is sexual, deciding that that is irrelevant, but concluding that “nice, pliable little Kitty” is the kind of woman Mike would or should have married if he had known what kind of an adult he was going to be. Coming, as he did, out of the service right at the end of World War 2 and marrying quickly, he and Mina never have dealt with the fact that they have different psychic & emotional needs.

Discovering his mother’s affair is at least as big a shock as his father’s quick second marriage. Natasha reminds him that their generation – now in its eighties – went through the sixties just like everyone else and discusses spouse-swapping parties, three-ways and drug use very matter of factly, tho it’s not clear whether Mike & Mina ever flirted with sex, drugs or rock-n-roll in quite the same way.

Mike tells Doug that Mina never really new how to love him. Her highest compliment ever was “You’re sort of okay, you’re better than most of the men I know.” And he knows about what he calls her fantasy sex life, her emotional identification with actors or politicians, her intense feelings for her therapist, etc. Mike admits that he doesn’t miss her, tho you can see the toll that recognition has on him.

Doug finally asks his father the question. Had he ever cheated on Mina? There is a long, awkward silence that could be interpreted any number of different ways, followed by Mike’s saying no, he never had, he’d had opportunities, but had never acted on them.

So the narrative frame of seeing their father as the cheater and Mina as the cheated-upon turns out to be exactly the opposite of what you end with in the film. Doug is still reeling from seeing his father suddenly full of life, looking to the future in his mid-80s, and obviously happy as this film draws to a close. But the process has allowed him – and his two sisters – to come to accept Kitty for the very warm, solid person she is. And it’s enabled Doug to really communicate with his father. They literally end up, at film’s end, holding hands.

I don’t think this film could have been done as fiction – so much of it depends on Mina’s diaries – Doug quotes them at length, tho you only see key phrases highlighted on the screen. It would look just too convenient a narrative in a “made-up” story – but as a documentary you get a sense of both Mina & Mike as good, warm people of great depth, who clearly had different needs and never were able to address that gap in their lives. Was Mina clinically depressed? She certainly seems so, and yet her story is not a diagnosis, any more than Mike was the automaton of an engineer his son appears to have feared going into the film. If they weren’t the picture-book happy marriage envisioned by the anniversary party at the start of the movie, they certainly chose to hold together, so that their regrets – both had plenty – don’t appear to include the decision to stay a couple even as they realized their differences.

What this film does better than any I can remember – the closest “cinematic” equivalent I can think of is perhaps Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage – is give you a sense of the depth and complexity of these two people, and of the incredible difficulty posed by the task of somehow joining two such complicated beings into a single unit. Is their marriage “a failure”? I don’t think that Doug would say yes to that. One of his sisters, on the response film, comes very close tho and breaks down at the thought that Mina might have “found happiness” had she left the marriage a quarter century earlier. My own sense is that this film does a much better job suggesting just how responsible each one of is for his or her own happiness – it’s not so much something you find as it is something you build. Mina doesn’t seem likely to have built hers anywhere else, even if being with the “wrong” man all those years couldn’t have been easy. Mike on the other hand seems to have suffered in silence – Kitty makes a point of noting that he’s a good listener and that this is his primary attraction – but he has far less difficulty in moving on, taking precisely that responsibility. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is that Mike, Mina & Kitty all end up presented as complex, admirable people – Doug Block avoids all the narrative pitfalls that would have pitted one against another. Instead, you get a sense of what 50-plus years actually means for two individuals not magically suited one to the other. That’s an enormous amount to convey in just 90 minutes.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

 

Ron Silliman

West Coast Readings

 

Tuesday, October 2

5:30 to 7:00 PM

Mills Hall Living Room

Mills College, Oakland

5000 MacArthur Bld

Free & open to the public

 

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Wednesday, October 3

8:00 PM

Meese Auditorium

Center for the Visual Arts

Southern Oregon University

Ashland, Oregon

Free ($5 donation suggested)

& open to the public

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