Friday, August 01, 2008

 

There is an exactness, both of vision and execution, in Martha Ronk’s Vertigo that literally alters your sense of perception, as if after months or years you’d put on new glasses through which the world instantly snapped into a newer, sharper focus. She is the kind of poet who is willing to risk perfection, often I think a foolish gamble but never once so here. There are moments in this book where she comes ridiculously close to achieving just that.

In a way, it’s doubly interesting to come on Vertigo right after reading Geoffrey G. O’Brien, since Ronk also reflects some influence on the part of John Ashbery, but in her case the presence & impact is quite different – it’s as tho you’re getting to see where Ashbery’s patented logic might lead, say, a century hence. A good example might be this poem, from the first of the book’s three sections. Note that the quotation marks are part of the title itself:

“It seemed similar to choice, although in an adjacent register”


Ferns and jewelweed fanning the air too slowly for the coming shift
as if the package as yet unwrapped had already arrived
in another time zone, the desert hot and dry.
Anticipation veiled what could be seen from the window.
We remained seated for about a quarter of an hour
counting the number of trees in order to put off the inevitable,
in order to see the effect the change would have before it happened
giving up what perhaps needn’t have been given up,
selecting pain as one of the necessary elements,
not to lessen its effect, but to notice the precise moment of selection.

A poem like this is very careful in not naming whatever it might be about. The word it in fact is easily the most important term, yet only in its last – and possessive – occurrence can we even say exactly what it is. What we get instead, as with so many third-way poets – Vertigo was selected for the National Poetry Series by C.D. Wright & includes front-matter blurbs from Donald Revell & Cole Swensen – is what I sometimes think of as the new symbolism. At its best, and Vertigo certainly is that, such poetry plays on the reader’s emotions with extraordinary impact, scenes that reek of loss, ennui or despair, such as the way the desert landscape here is associated with a pain one might choose.

Yet exactly which pain is that? If I have any hesitation here, it’s the same one I have with most of the new symbolism, that it tends to occur almost entirely at the limit of naming and typically in the frame of a certain class. Where, for example, does the following poem take place?

“Whenever she speaks to him in that voice, an infrequent enough occurrence”


What’s the difference between trying to lift an arm and lifting an arm,
between desire and that other thing. I’m glad to hear you’re coming.
I am glad to hear you think you’re coming despite the fact
she does take up the entire conversation, expressive as her dress
coming off in colors near the edge of every year she’s ever been in.
Yet she talks during the entire playing of the cello piece
displacing it into what she wants us to hear and into the silence
written on her when she takes on your voice at dinner
when you’ll arrive and now she speaks out of her beautifully disjointed face,
out of her hair wet from the pond, never in the voice she came in with.
When he lost his hearing, he heard only the cello’s low notes
and what he heard changed his way of hearing the piece forever.

This poem is full of terrific small effects – the way the ear picks up the pun in coming, a word repeated three times, the ambiguous gender of you, or the far more mysterious presence of he in the final couplet, which teeters on the razor-thin border between profound & profoundly obvious.

Ronk is really good & I’m impressed by how many times in this slender book¹ she not only takes risks like that last one, but manages to pull them off. There are no false notes anywhere. She’s a poet I’ve been vaguely aware of for some time – she’s had seven earlier books, plus three chaps, over the past 18 years – but maybe I needed the nudge of C.D. Wright on this volume to get me to pay closer attention. I’ve learned over the past quarter century that C.D. is one of the smartest people in poetry, indeed one of the smartest people period. I’ve benefited from C.D.’s advice on who to read more than once, and I owe her again for making this book happen.

 

¹ It uses the blurbs as well as both notes & acknowledgements to puff it up above 70 pages.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

 

I have been rereading William Carlos Williams'Spring & All in the 1970 Frontier Press edition. That edition reprints the original 1923 Contact Press edition published in a run of 300 copies and allowed to go out of print more or less immediately. The work has been available also since 1971 in the New Directions collection, Imaginations, a volume that crams together Williams' five most important prose works into what, to my eye, is a more or less unreadable crowd. That collection is so poorly done as to constitute an act of vandalism.

But if there is a single book that strikes me as representing the apotheosis of modernist writing, the single work that no other poet or writer could go “beyond” (tho Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & 23, which may also be the very last major text of the modernist movement, comes very close), Spring & All is it. Not coincidentally, it includes Williams’ best poetry and does so, for example, in a way that demonstrates how radically more a poem such as “Red Wheel Barrow” can be.

The book when it first came out did not have the impact on the world that it could have had with halfway decent distribution (equivalent, at least, to the self-publishing of Tender Buttons some 18 years earlier). The poems survived, and flourished, because Williams put them into other collections, most notably the Collected Earlier Poems. But the total book, which is where these poems make by far the most sense, stayed out of print until 1970 when Frontier Press brought out its edition just as New Directions was readying Imaginations.

For all I know, Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press might not have printed any more copies than did Contact Press. But through Serendipity Books in Berkeley, the forerunner to today’s Small Press Distribution, it reached a much wider range of readers very quickly. Suddenly the essays of Charles Olson no longer seemed so “out there” as the most significant act of theoretical/critical writing since Ezra Pound. And Williams, far from the charming local doc from Paterson, NJ, who wrote in the “plainest” English anyone had seen prior to Frank O’Hara was suddenly revealed to be a completely different writer.

Of the works that separate out the New American Poetries of the 1950s, which include some work by New Americans, such as Creeley’s Pieces and Ashbery’s Three Poems, as well as Oppen’s Of Being Numerous & the late work of Zukofsky, Spring & All is one of those books that shows decisively just how far New American Poetry did NOT go. It had as much impact as any of the early books by Clark Coolidge, maybe as much as Grenier’s essays in the first issue of This.

But then it went out of print again, leaving only the crowded phone booth that is Imaginations for new readers interested in obtaining it. Of all the great books of that hinge moment in American poetry, this is the text that the fewest young readers have had a chance to see in its best possible format.

I had imagined that since any work published prior to 1923 was now in the public domain, that within a year or so, Spring & All would be as well. And this is a text I feel strongly enough about that I could imagine publishing it myself (not that I have the resources to do so). But now I realize that this impression was a misconception. The nature of the law is such that works published in 1923 or after, at least up until the 1970s, belong to a 95-years after publication rule. That would not put Spring & All into the public domain until 2018.

Which means that I can’t coax Chax or Green Integer or City Lights or whomever to do the right thing and bring this book back in the format that makes the greatest sense, as a small book that just about fits into your pocket. At least not for another decade.

And this makes me feel bereft.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

 

Fairfield Porter & John Ashbery

§

Tracie Morris reading
at the
Conceptual Poetry & Its Others
conference (video)

§

Walter Benjamin’s last
report on French lit

§

Positions Colloquium:
6 days of poetry & panels
next month in Vancouver

§

intensity may be
what matters most”

§

Terror poems
are terrible poems

§

Frank O’Hara on TV
in Emmy-nominated drama

§

Charles Guenther has died

§

Doris Lessing’s “last book”

§

The great gay hope

§

what’s so interesting
about being a lout?”

§

The poetry of Radovan Karadzic

§

Jon Goode
& the rise of spoken word

§

76 teams compete
in this year’s
National Slam

§

Is the net the enemy of reading?

§

Britain’s reading block

Even writers get it

§

Larry McMurtry’s Books

§

e-books
and the creation of a new art form

While cleaving us from the old

§

Pandora:
something
every national library
should have

§

The 25 most modern
libraries in the world

§

The Living Library
is coming to America

§

The Night Bookmobile

§

Emily Dickinson on stage

§

Mimi White’s The Last Island

§

Talking with Norbert Krapf

§

Commemorating the death of
Theodore Roethke

§

Mary Karr on Allen Grossman

§

The poetry of Rowan Williams,
Archbishop of Canterbury

§

Megawords goes storefront

§

Kyle Schlesinger
on artists’ books

§

Artists’ Books Online

§

The Journal of Artists’ Books

§

A (very much) pre-feminist
claim for
the solidarity of poets

§

The communal solitude
of radio poetry

§

The “how to” book on fiction
that barely mentions plot

the great virtuoso of exceptionalism

James Wood on Aleksandar Hemon

§

Forgetting Bernard Malamud

§

For whom the owl blinks

§

Literary Darwinism

§

Rhymes against the state

§

A profile of David Brooks

§

Calling for Clerihews

§

Which great books did you forget to read?

§

Books by Mick Imlah, Bernard O’Donoghue & Adam Foulds

§

how can five words about thoughts
NOT be a poem?”

§

America’s greatest living poet

§

The art of collecting stories

§

The particular &/vs. commons

§

Reassessing Raymond Williams

§

The professional integrity of Paul de Man
(ignoring, of course, a few other things)

§

Memoir of a literary forger

§

The Federal Theater Project

§

Richard Diebenkorn & Carey Stanton

§

Bansky unmasked

§

The origin of the site visit

§

Mike Davis on the Democrats

§

The end of the Black American narrative?

Ditto

§

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Monday, July 28, 2008

 

There are two books tucked into Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Green and Gray, which came out last year from the University of California Press. Not in the sense of there being two poetic sequences within its pages (one Green, the other Gray), the way I published Non and Oz together as a single volume N/O, but rather an outer volume, one that’s often visible at the surface, and an inner book, which is the one I’m really interested in.

The outer volume might be characterized as a Zukofskian register: upper limit John Ashbery, lower limit Michael Palmer, two influences who never are very far from things here. Palmer goes so far as to contribute a blurb to the UC Press website for the book, and O’Brien, no surprise, has written critically on both. I don’t think of Palmer & Ashbery being that compatible within the same poetics – both are masters of indirection, but they use it to such different purposes. Palmer seems always to be seeking the chiseled edge of beauty, or a certain kind of beauty, where Ashbery on the other hand often feels far more content to be in the process, really in the process, which can sometimes feel like swimming beneath the surface of a sea composed of oatmeal, only prettier. Very few hard edges there.

But the Geoffrey G. O’Brien that fascinates me isn’t either of those gents, but this third one who comes through, as in the poem “Ur”:

I saw the only man there is
walking home across a stage
Pushed to do so
Coming home from someplace else
as though inheriting
lights coming on over doors
Looking with the sense of having been
put there on purpose to survive
to be equal to a turning point
where something else was
where it was thick and now
the sense of no one following
Future perfect purple-brown
of twilight both ahead and behind
I saw the obvious houses
neither following nor stopping dead
the yield of a place in departure
curves of trees across the stage
The nature we were taught of
shadow of a magnet on the grass
some thing will soon disappear
the grass in the middle of its flight
from thought to neglect
returning again when needed
Doubtless to return again
I walked home across a stage
like weather beginning to
and here where myself in the distance
where apparitions and obligations
and a sense of being extended as
and in the depths of exchanges like changes
stories of the marketplace
audible worlds and their urns
I see a woman who’ll soon disappear
after having her part
in a rhythm like grasses

These longer works of a single stanza – just a hint there of the craft of Ted Greenwald &/or Tom Raworth – evolve & complete themselves in ways quite unlike anyone else. The poem maintains the same conceit – a person walking as tho on a stage, coming home toward sunset – throughout, although the narrative unity here seems not to be the point at all. Nor is it what is seen, exactly, “the only man,” “a woman who’ll soon disappear,” so much as it is how one sees, that internal framing that transforms the phenomenological into a kind of interior art, Future perfect purple-brown. Ashbery shows up here solely as a single twitch, that lapse into the first person plural. The poem is nearly as still as the wind, and what I come away with is an experience of reverie as complete as any I can think of in poetry.

O’Brien’s poems are, at their best, very quiet, even at times bleak. When they sometimes come across more chipper, the tone often feels borrowed, as in “A Word With a Poem Around It:”

Rhythm opposes any instant of itself
so too the tree that dumps itself
over a hedge lives in general time
beyond the concerns implied by sounds,
doesn’t resemble any instant of itself,
can no longer be recognized as
a set of interdependences there run together
to form a forward-facing bust of age.
So too nights induced to be serene
curve around the features, preparing them
to be once more deliberately overheard.
Once again work has been done while you sleep.

That last line slams the door shut as loudly as the signature theme on any segment of Law and Order. Yes, it’s Ashbery, and it doesn’t really contribute anything to the marvelous play between terminal -t and -cies that O’Brien deploys in the first sentence. This is a poem that could be read as tho each sentence were a separate work of art, the first of which is simply fabulous, the latter two almost character portraits, as if to see how compactly one might render such a silhouette of the New York School don. What’s the fewest number of words needed to give an impression of Ashbery that everyone would “get”?

But I don’t care if O’Brien can get it down to a single gesture, the way comics used to “do Groucho” just by flexing their eyebrows while pretending to tap ashes from an invisible cigar. That seems far less interesting than this brooding phenomenologist who’s a master already of the subdued tonal shift. O’Brien is the kind of writer, at his best, who makes you think that a booklength poem that did nothing other than describe the ocean surface off a winter coast could be the greatest thing in the world. And in his hands, it just might be.

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