Saturday, March 29, 2008

 

Ange Mlinko on Helen Adam

Helen Adam sound files

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Jonathan Williams & Guy Davenport

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Jordan Davis on Philip Whalen

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The 2008 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere
is now open for nominations
(past laureates include Jilly Dybka, Amy King & me)

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Rae Armantrout reads at Wesleyan

Armantrout in the new Nation
(subscription required)

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Reginald Shepherd
reading Bruns reading Stevens

on being “difficult

& on passion in Robert Duncan

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St. Petersburg marks the 70th anniversary of
the death of Osip Mandelstam

The Anna Akhmatova Museum
at Fountain House

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Bunting’s language

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Bookshelves of the dead

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Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems, Prose and Letters

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The George Oppen Centennial Symposium
(click & scroll down)

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Paul Siegell’s latest review

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Thesaurus Rx

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Did Coleridge translate Faust?

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David Orr on Mary Jo Bang

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time to start reading again

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Shakespeare’s quarto editions
to go digital

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A rambling meditation
that eventually gets
to Mary Oliver

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Lynne Sharon Schwartz & Al Filreis
discuss a feminist response to
Robert Creeley’s guy talk road poem

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Allen Taylor’s favorite blogs
(+ how to make me feel really old)

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When tongues collide

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Armageddon in Retrospect

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Defamation suit against
Kenzaburo Oe dropped

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10 questions for Edward Byrnes
& not one mention of
77 Sunset Strip

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Adam Kirsch on Martin Amis

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Anti-plagiarism tools
don’t violate ©

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John Latta on Chris Martin

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The Ron Paul graphics revolution

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Recorded voice, 20 years before Edison

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David Hockney on the power of images

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Rem Koolhaas in Dubai

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Students for a Free Tibet

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Red George’s moment of socialism?
(Doing for Wall Street
what he wouldn’t do for
New Orleans)

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

 

Back in the mid-1980s, all I knew of Ben Friedlander was that he was in the East Bay co-editing a little magazine with the best name, Jimmy & Lucy’s House of K, along with some guy who worked at Moe’s, the new & used book emporium on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I remember seeing his first chapbooks and sensing a Big Huh – I clearly did not get it & wasn’t at all certain that there was something here to be gotten. Friedlander’s co-editor turned out to be Andrew Schelling, who himself proved to be quite a bit more than just “a guy in a bookstore.” But it was hard to tell back then if any of this was going to add up to all that much. Friedlander’s own poems seemed slight & not so much off-balance as to eschew balance altogether. Yet when you talked with the guy, you were almost bowled over by the intellectual ambition that seemed to be bursting out everywhere at the seams.

Flash forward a quarter century & Friedlander is one of the most solid & important poets & scholars we have, really one of the defining intelligences of the present moment. But picking up The Missing Occasion of Saying Yes, his collection of writing from 1984 through 1994, released last year by the subpress collective, reminded me of just how suspicious I felt first seeing Jimmy & Lucy’s & Ben’s work. I wasn’t sure that this was a book I really wanted to read. So I took it slowly, at first, then found myself drawn in, then drawn in further, then wondering just why nobody has written an essay on the precursors of flarf that would point to this work, along with that of Charles Bernstein & Walter Benjamin & Bertolt Brecht, and finally found myself completely sucked in & reading it rapidly, deeply and ultimately feeling that sadness you do when getting to the end of a great book that it’s over, there is no more. And wanting very much, right now, a volume of the next decade’s work instantly at hand.

Friedlander’s early poems are still slight, but now I can see just how aggressively so this is. And they’re still off-balance, but I’m right about their impulse to throw the idea of balance overboard completely. Often they read like nursery rhymes that have gone through a meat grinder, or snatches of language you might hear on the street, tho never particularly a street you’ve actually walked on. Lets look at an example from the series called “Algebraic Melody,” poems using two quatrains each:

True opposites,
  Contending likes,
Over the space between
  That divides between

The part and the whole–
  A marble mask
The water wore, rushing
  Away, the cringing foal

The poem employs a frame that is immediately familiar, an abstract description followed by an image that presumably represents it. It’s the logical structure of a lot of haiku. Yet the individual elements here seem so determined not to fit. The abstract description itself seems to fold in on itself right at the moment it rhymes. The concrete instance is composed of incommensurate images. You can imagine rushing floodwaters, say, presenting a solid surface not unlike marble, but a marble mask ultimately is saying something quite different from this. And finally that image of the cringing foal – all of this is leading up to such an unattractive instance of minor terror?

Friedlander wears his allegiances on his sleeve. It is easy to see Larry Eigner, Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, Emily Dickinson, Bertolt Brecht & Charles Bernstein as the hovering angels of these texts. What Friedlander seems to take from each is instructive – a sense of word-to-word writing that can be traced both to Eigner & Dickinson, a dourness one might track to Celan, a sense of letting the poem lead wherever it must that was the hallmark of Creeley (but Eigner also), a sense of satire that extends from Brecht & Bernstein, the continual play between balance – see the rhyme in the first stanza above – and a deeper imbalance (see same aforementioned rhyme). These lyrics are not so much strangled as they are throttled in the crib. The result is something quite unlike any of these ghosts or masters, but you can see where it stands as a work that had to exist if ever flarf were to be invented. There is an awfulness here that is integral to Friedlander’s vision, a poetic equivalent of something like David Lynch’s baby in Eraserhead, or what Munch’s Scream might have invoked before it resolved into kitsch. Friedlander confronts it most directly, perhaps, in the volume’s very last poem, entitled “Poem”:

Contradiction
makes a knot
and keeps the rope
from slipping through our fingers

I was a fish
but my tail turned
tight to the twisted
seaweed nomenclature

It was sped up experimentally
on the page, this indecision
that binds us to an action
that doesn’t happen

Reading the text, you begin to understand that the title is not generic, as it first seems, but deeply ironic. This is Auden’s accusation that poetry makes nothing happen (and just possibly Adorno’s “lyric poetry after Auschwitz…”), both pushing & pulling all at once. The allegory here – the metaphor generated by equating “the line” with a rope & a fishing line, not once actually uttering the word line – dominates each stanza. In each, the subject is somehow trapped, in love with surplus meaning & sucked in all at once. It’s a perfect poem in a book that has more than a few such works, the bitter laughter so sharp it could cut, so muted you might mistake it for mumbling.

This volume is just the latest example of how a small press collective, so decentralized they don’t even maintain a decent Blogspot page on the web, can at the same time be one of our very most important publishers. In 30 years (hell, in 30 minutes) nobody will give a damn what FSG did or did not publish, but people will write volumes about the vision and practice of the subpress collective. Ben Friedlander’s book is one big reason why.

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Woeser’s Tibetan blog

An analysis of “the Woeser incident

Woeser’s review of Dreaming Lhasa

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Alice Notley wins the Lenore Marshall prize

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The Great Compromise

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Cole Swensen’s Ours

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The Counter-Revolution will not be televised:
Al Filreis on the politics of the
School of Quietude

Filreis discussing the book (MP3)

Filreis reading excerpts (MP3)

Charles Bernstein’s intro at the launch party (MP3)

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“The truffle-hound of American poetry”

Jonathan Williams on the air
(MP3 available until March 30)

A bibliography for Jonathan Williams

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Alan Gilbert on C.D. Wright

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A dissertation on micropoetics

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Reginald Shepherd on Joanna link & Geoffry G. O’Brien

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Hank Lazer reviews
Jake Berry, Dave Brinks, Duriel Harris,
Tom Mandel, Glenn Mott & Stephen Vincent

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Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust

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A eulogy for Vincent Ferrini

& one for Hone Tuwhare

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Elena Rivera & Jennifer Moxley read in Bangor

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Grace Paley’s Fidelity

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A new ebook from Nico Vassilakis
(PDF)

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Life at Slam U

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Stephen Burt on Laura Kasischke

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Remembering Otieno Amisi

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Writing Japanese poetry in Korea

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Frost’s argument for his work

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The Litblog Coop goes belly up

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Thinking about which texts to assign

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Zbignew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito

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Toledo’s laureate has office hours & plans

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A monument to Quietude

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This week’s death-of-a-bookstore piece
comes from Napa

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Britain’s indie publishers

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Resuscitating Kent Johnson

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Ignoring Dickens’ last wish

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Our Mauberly’s monument

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Pols & their poetry

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What to do with your dissertation

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The San Francisco WritersCorps

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The Block Island Poetry Project

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Talking with Mark Doty

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A profile of Robert Farnsworth

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Elizabeth Bishop’s complete works

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Bookcases in war

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“Poets Bearing Witness” in Beirut

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Iron John” comes to Black Mountain

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A reading report on Alicia Ostriker

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A Nova Scotia poet of the 19th century

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an oracle of the ordinary

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Poetry, music & dance in Sedona

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In Gilbert, Arizona, a cowboy poet
reads to fund a museum

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The Great Plains Writers Conference

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Tarting up digital fiction

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Superbooks

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Larry Woiwode’s A Step from Death

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Thom Yorke & Ken Livingston

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The “Iranian Bob Dylan” & other moderates

The loneliness of an Iranian rapper

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No bel amour for Mr Bellamy
as Sir Paul anaqrams his divorce

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Alan Gilbert on Peter Schjeldahl’s art criticism

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Still trying to save the Barnes

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Jasper Johns & color charts

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Joe Brainard’s The Nancy Book

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A Lot of Things Like This

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Stan Brakhage films in Boston, March 26

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A profile of Lydia Lopokova

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Progressives for Obama

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

 


Llewelyn and the satchel

Okay. No Country for Old Men finally made it to DVD & I got it from Netflix right away, watching it twice in the same evening, once with Krishna who gave up shortly after the first coin toss scene because it was too violent & creepy, once with my son Jesse, just to make sure I wasn’t missing something.¹ My sense after the second viewing was that, yes, it was a good film, tho not a great one & hardly the best I’d seen made in the past year. Not only was it not better than There Will Be Blood, it was a steep step downwards from It’s Not Me, Once, Into the Wild or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Maybe even Juno. Among Coen brother projects, I’d put it somewhere around The Man Who Wasn’t There, a good little flick with lots to look at, but also deeply flawed.

Well Hollywood has been known to give the Best Picture Oscar to lesser films before, whether to a bon-bon like Shakespeare in Love when Saving Private Ryan was sitting right next to it, or to real dogs like Chicago, Out of Africa or, the most feral of all pooch pics, Rocky. No Country isn’t in the canine category, but still it makes you wonder. I know that a lot of the Academy’s voters are older & no longer really active in the industry, tho I would have expected them to react not unlike my wife to this updated version of The Missouri Breaks, the Arthur Penn-Marlon Brando-Jack Nicholson fiasco that attempted to construct a film around violence the way a porn director paces sex scenes (or did at least before the web wiped out the big budget XXX-travaganzas). This felt instead more like a remake of Blood Simple, the debut flick the Coen brothers made over 20 years ago. Tho Blood Simple won Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Award (& it won at Sundance the year before), it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.² Maybe the voters this were feeling guilty for only giving the truly gifted Coen brothers one Best Picture for Fargo. After all, they’d passed on everything from The Hudsucker Proxy to The Big Lebowski to Brother, Oh Wherefore Art Thou. You can’t say the Coen boys weren’t due.

A large part of the reason that No Country didn’t work for me was Tommy Lee Jones, one of the finest actors around. In fact, that was precisely the problem. I have seen Jones in so many movies & in so many roles – including the In the Valley of Elah for which he was deservedly nominated for Best Actor – that the sheriff of rather limited intellect just doesn’t come off right. If you listen to his lines & look at his actions in the film, this guy is no bright light. He never catches anybody & doesn’t seem even clued in to the important detail that there are multiple sets of villains after Llewelyn’s ass for absconding with the suitcase with $2 million after he comes across a drug deal turned “OK Corral” in the Texas desert somewhere around Marfa in the year 1980. Sheriff Bell might even had led Llewelyn’s poor little Carla Jean to her doom just by not understanding the nature of the threat. All he does is ride around to squint at the aftermath & pontificate – which he does a lot. To his addled deputy Wendell, to Carla Jean, to a lawman down in El Paso³, finally to a half-crazed paraplegic relative who’s gone from lawman to cat herder himself out there in the desert. Only Sheriff Bell’s wife appears not be buying any, but she’s not enough to keep Jones’ folksiness from turning him into Yoda with a ten-gallon hat. That’s not who Jones wants to be, but it’s who we got.

In a sense, Sheriff Bell should be the most interesting part of this film’s structure. He is the counterpoint, the non-psychopath, the minimalist who doesn’t even draw his gun when he & Wendell first enter Llewelyn’s trailer. Both Javier Bardem’s sociopathic Anton Chigurh and Josh Brolin’s wannabe tough-guy Llewelyn are maximalists – they will do anything to accomplish their goal. A lot of the film is nothing more than watching this excess at work. Like getting across the border with no clothes on. Like the coin-tossing scene, friendo. It has no narrative function whatsoever other than to let us linger awhile watching Chigurh toy with life & death, so that later we will understand the implications when the accountant asks Chigurh “Are you going to kill me?” and Bardem responds, “Well, that depends. Can you see me?” We know without watching what comes next. Ditto the scene at the end with Carla Jean, Chigurh checking his boots on the front porch on his way out for any bloodstains they might have picked up.

Those moments of carnage implied but not shown are part of No Country’s shapeliness & this is a film that cares deeply just how good it looks – like with the cloud over the desert when Llewelyn is aiming at the deer right before he finds the trucks. Or Chigurh’s picking his boots up off the floor and resting them against the bed in the hotel so that Carson Wells’ blood doesn’t sully them while Chigurh chats with Llewelyn on the phone.

Which is why the editing at the Sands motel comes across as so patchwork. There is no reason to show us Chigurh hiding in the shadows as Sheriff Bell enters the crime scene motel room and not to have him kill Bell other than the realization that audiences might not get it from just the unscrewed air vent alone that Chigurh is now the one with the money (the boys on the bikes later comment on the size of the bill he offers for a shirt). Clearly it was the Mexicans who took care of Llewelyn, leaving one of their own dead outside the motel room they never got into, leaving Chiguhr to stroll in knowing right where the money would be hidden. This sequence is so clumsy that it jumps out as possibly a last-minute edit. But even with it, I had to watch the film twice to extract everything that was going on.

In a film that is as controlled as this – I wondered if that cloud was a CGI effect, in fact – such cringe-inducing moments are truly curious. Afterwards, I kept wondering who might have done a better job as Sheriff Bell – Bob Duvall is too obvious – someone whose challenged logic wouldn’t come across as shorthand for wisdom. Then I realized that the choice was obvious all along. There is only one human being truly believable as the kind of bumpkin the Coen brothers want to invoke, and that’s the original: George W. Bush.

 

¹ In fact, I had. I had not gotten the first time through just who killed Llewelyn & who got the money – that whole sequence at the El Paso Desert Sands motel went by too fast for me, especially with that one gaping edit there at the end.

² Platoon beat out Hannah and Her Sisters, Children of a Lesser God, The Mission and Room with a View.

³ Who gets stuck with the film’s worst lines, complaining about “green hair and bones in their nose” of today’s youth. Really? In 1980 El Paso? Unlikely.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

 

Finally, I got hear Lisa Robertson read for the very first time the other evening. It was one of those events that make perfectly clear just why Robertson has twice finished first – in 2004 & 2006 – as the writer most often cited in Steve Evans’ annual list of writers whose books people are thinking about. Or why the Chicago Review would think to devote a major feature to her work. Not that this was a surprise, really. You can see it in the books plainly enough, such as The Men, which I reviewed here, or Rousseau’s Boat which I reviewed nine months earlier. Or Debbie: An Epic, great scandalous title that that was a decade ago.

Not surprisingly, Robertson is a writer who takes a long time constructing a text. In the Q&A session that followed – one of the best I’ve heard, tho it was short, just because of the depth & candidness of her responses to questions – she indicated that The Men entailed going through work that was already six-years-old and editing out apparently massive amounts of text. She read the very opening & closing passages of this at Temple, sandwiching a “new” work, A Cuff or The Cuff, in between. In the newer work Robertson is using the last lines from pages of notebooks that are perhaps 20-years-old. These are the sort of tactics I find myself using in my own work – it’s not unusual for any poem of mine to take several years to see the light of day – so my ears perked right up.

This helped to explain to me the discursive tone that Robertson reaches in her work. She loves, as any reader would soon guess, the language of philosophy and her nouns tend to be, as she puts it, “indexical” more than referential:

They elaborate a cogitation. In this way I arrive at the thought of them. Increasingly their oxygen is my own and I in my little coloured shoes to please them. Their revolution is permanent and mine a decoration. When the trees smear their sky, when their poems are the periphery of the West, when they swim from their silver docks, I swim too and we communicate in water. This was September, there were three of us, and one was a man. I feel passionately about their gardens.

This passage, from The Men: A Lyric Book, is not atypical. It’s constructed rather than expressive, although you can sense the politics & bitterness of Robertson’s irony in a sentence like Their revolution was permanent and mine a decoration. Yet it is never clear just how much we should ever take “I” to mean “I” in her work in any literal way. Instead, she likes to accentuate the degree to which things refer to their categories, rather than to a specific instance, by setting them as plurals: their poems, their silver docks. Thus the most referential of sentences – This was September, there were three of us, and one was a man – functions not to clarify the tale so much as to measure just how far from the referential the rest of the language here really is.

This mode of discourse creates an air of distance & Robertson is masterful at controlling just how much & to what ends she chooses to direct it. I imagine that someone might someday spell out a spectrum, not unlike Zukofsky’s “integral” of upper limit song, lower limit speech, only more horizontal, extending from the most aesthetic philosophical discursive mode, say Michael Palmer (or even John Ashbery), to the most social or political, say Barrett Watten. It would be easy enough to place Robertson on that spectrum, much closer to Watten than to Palmer, save that she frames everything in ways that are uniquely feminist from the inside and also distinctly Canadian. Which is to say that her work proposes other axes quite at different angles from this one. To an American ear (and a male one at that), each of these Others can feel like a critique. It’s not that there aren’t American women involved in just this same critique – Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Bev Dahlen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Rae Armantrout, Jean Day all immediately jump to mind. Nor that they don’t employ some of the same devices. Or that there aren’t other Canadian poets who don’t likewise explore this territory, such as Jeff Derksen. But there really is only one Lisa Robertson, and we’re very lucky that the number is that high.

PennSound has recordings of three readings by Lisa Robertson here, and A Voice Box has another here.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

 

Shanna Compton recaps the “book cover” meme

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A Jonathan Williams page at the EPC

The bard of Scaly Mountain

Michael Lally on Jonathan Williams,
Ivan
Dixon & Anthony Minghella

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A page for Helen Adam at the EPC

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The Robert Duncan page at PennSound

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Questions for Ishmael Reed

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Poetry as a topological model for political thought –
the case of Rod Smith

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Reading Rachel Loden

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Who is the secret poet in the UK government?

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Talking with Paul Siegell

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5 stories by Barbara Henning

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The Missoula scene

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Kent Johnson presents Jaime Saenz

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Justin Sirois Secondary Sound

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Tsering Woeser & Wang Lixiong
are under arrest in
Beijing

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Making Gertrude accessible

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A Puerto Rican poet with Alzheimer’s

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John Ashbery accepts the Robert Creeley award

The roots of the Creeley award

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Charles Bernstein & the authentic self

What makes a poem a poem?
(60 second lecture)

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“The world’s longest poem”??

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Barry MacSweeney & the Bunting influence

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Donald Richie on 100 waka

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Guy Davenport as cartoonist

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Alan Davies on Emanuel Carnevali

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Garrison Keillor reads Cid Corman

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Simic vs. Creeley

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Jayne Cortez in Bed-Stuy

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The Most Dangerous Art
poetry in 20th century
Russia

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Bad-boy memoirist denied entry to US

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A new translation of Cavafy

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Bookshelf etiquette

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A jazzman’s plans
for libraries in New Orleans

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Adam Fieled on Jordan Stempleman

Jeffrey Side on Adam Fieled

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A profile of Travis Watkins

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Todd Swift on different directions
for Canadian poetry

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Borders is for sale

But is the damage already done?

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The resurrection of Franz Wright

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Poetry Everywhere is heavily skewed
towards the
School of Quietude

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Thomas Lux on Ilya Kaminsky

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Josh Corey on the new sentence
& the “red meat” of narrative

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The greatest poets of my generation are women

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King Lear of the Taxi

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Poets with a shoe fetish

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Creative writing programs without poetry
are quite normal down under

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March 19 was World Poetry Day

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A profile of Jack Wiler

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Edward Byrne on the start
of Bob Dylan’s career

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The Longfellow tour

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A novel about Robert Frost

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Recalling Bill McLaughlin

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Preparing for the NEA

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clichéd…and sentimental” –
Michael Hofmann’s Selected Poems

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Profile of a workshop in Lacey, WA

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The death-haunted poetics of Alan Shapiro

Andrew Hudgins on Shapiro & Michael Chitwood

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A snoozer from Mark Strand

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A collaborative film betwixt
Alasdair Gray & Liz Lochhead
that never quite happened

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Eavan Boland & Edward Hirsch on
The Making of a Sonnet

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Translation slams

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Newspapers on campus

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School of Quietude: prose division

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Do schools kill creativity?

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Nicholson Baker’s inconvenient truths

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Wikipedia syndrome

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Vito Acconci at Slought

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After Frida Kahlo

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One way to replace critical thinking

Do art critics matter?

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Peep Show 2

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Allan Kaprow happenings at the Tate Modern

He is not Allan Kaprow

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Art fraud on EBay busted

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The patron is a Prada

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Wright country

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The last of the rightwing modernists

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The price of free expression

Agit-prop or sterotypes?

Umberto Eco on the freedom to write

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