Saturday, January 04, 2003

Christian Bök’s String Variables is one of those initially deceptive projects in that you begin to read the two minuscule chapbooks On and Off that are gathered together (with a band of paper, not string, alas) in this micropress project, a press run of 60 copies issued jointly as openpalmseries 2.5 & 2.6 and umlaut machine nos. 6 & 7, & it is only when, starting the second volume – I read On before I did Off, although I would wager that this effect will work just as well if the little volumes are read in the opposite order – you begin to recognize the uncanny similarities. Here is the first page of On:


          no tone

semantic or epic
to graphic
I clemecy sty
nympho nemesis
pro systematic

            on icing

            i fester

            i corridor

            so famous

And here is roughly the same amount of text from the first page of Off:

          err at
          at at
          too not
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
rose manticore
man cyst yes per
antonym phoneme
rib leprosy stem

            at iconic
            in glottal
            is manifest

erratic or rid
of a mouse

Letter by letter, these two texts are all but identical, so much so that I will wager (this seems to be a betting blog) that “clemecy” in On is in fact a typo and should read “clemancy,” even though the latter is itself a misspelling. Reading the two works together – I put a couple of hours between each volume – is an almost eerie experience. There’s certainly no way that I can tell whether On was the “master” text & Off the “slave,” the one forced to fit the primary draft of the other, or the other way ‘round. Nor can I see any simple way for the imagination to derive systematic out of leprosy stem / at iconic even though, looking closely, I can see that it’s there.

Like Eunoia, Bök’s book of aggressive vowel constraints, String Variables is both a written work that is fun to read aloud & the result of an almost unimaginably rigorous formal process – he is clearly the master of post-Oulipo poetics. Technically speaking, String Variables is a misnomer for the process by which this work must have been composed. In programming, the little I understand of it, you have both variables & constants – no great theoretical problem there – either of which might be composed of numeric data or of “strings,” in which numeric data can be joined with alphabetic and other symbols. So we have strings here alright, but it is only the spaces & linebreaks that vary. (Thus the paradigm On/Off refers to the states of electrical current that are then translated into a binary system to generate all such information.)

Works like Eunoia and String Variables envision a model of language that no traditionally-educated linguist would recognize – they wouldn’t recognize Finnegans Wake either – a model in which letters, not phonemes, organize language. String Variables almost looks as if one could simply take a great block of type and divide it into clusters and – Voila! words & phrases would just “naturally” appear. The reality of course is infinitely more complex & part of Bök’s genius lies precisely in making it look so deceptively easy. While Bök’s work fits into the larger context of Toronto’s grammatologically-inflected post-avant poetry scene, the broader framework of Oulipo and its international heritage, & relates at some level to the work of Americans such as Jackson Mac Low, Bök brings a unique flavor to it all – exactly that combination of inconceivable rigor & utter simplicity. I’ve never read a substantial work of his that I didn’t wish I’d written myself.

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Friday, January 03, 2003

Lyn Hejinian has offered the readers of My Life a unique look into the compositional strategies of the project by publishing two different booklength versions. The first, published by Burning Deck in 1980, includes 37 paragraphs of 37 sentences each. The second, published by Sun & Moon in 1987, offers 45 paragraphs of 45 sentences each. Thus, in addition to adding eight new paragraphs, one for each of the intervening years of the project, Hejinian also added eight sentences to each of the existing paragraph of the first version. Hejinian also appears to have made small additions to at least one existing sentence within each paragraph. Here is the seventh paragraph of the 1987 version, known by its epigram “Like plump birds along the shore,” with material new to this version printed in boldface:

Summers were spent in a fog that rains. They were mirages, no different from those that camelback riders approach in the factual accounts of voyages in which I persistently imagined myself, and those mirages on the highway were for me both impalpable souvenirs and unmistakable evidence of my own adventures, now slightly less vicarious than before. The person too has flared ears, like an infant’s reddened with batting. I had claimed the radio nights for my own. There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know “what really happened.” The pair of ancient, stunted apricot trees yield ancient, stunted apricots. What was the meaning hung from that depend. The sweet aftertaste of artichokes. The lobes of autobiography. Even a minor misadventure, a bumped fender or a newsstand without newspapers, can “ruin the entire day,” but a child cries and laughs without rift. The sky droops straight down. I lapse, hypnotized by the flux and reflux of the waves. They had ruined the Danish pastry by frosting it with whipped butter. It was simply a tunnel, a very short one. Now I remember worrying about lockjaw. The cattle were beginning to move across the field pulled by the sun, which proved them to be milk cows. There is so little public beauty. I found myself depended on a pause, a rose, something on paper. It is a way of saying, I want you, too, to have this experience, so that we are more alike, so that we are closer, bound together, sharing a point of view – so that we are “coming from the same place.” It is possible to be homesick in one’s own neighborhood. Afraid of the bears. A string of eucalyptus pods was hung by the window to discourage flies. So much of “the way things were” was the same from one day to the next, that I can speak now of how we “always” had dinner, all of us sitting at our usual places in front of the placemats of woven straw, eating the salad first, with cottage cheese, which my father always referred to as “cottage fromage,” that being one of many little jokes with which he expressed his happiness at home. Twice he broke his baby toe, stubbing it at night. As for we who “love to be astonished,” my heartbeats shook the bed. In any case, I wanted to be both the farmer and his horse when I was a child, and I tossed my head and stamped with one foot as if I were pawing the ground before a long gallop. Across the school playground, an outing, a field trip, passes in ragged order over the lines which mark the hopscotch patch. It made for a sort of family mythology. The heroes kept clean, chasing dusty rustlers, tonguing the air. They spent the afternoon building a dam across the gutter. There was too much carpeting in the house, but the windows upstairs were left open except on the very coldest or wettest of days. It was there that she met the astonishing figure of herself when young. Are we likely to find ourselves later pondering such suchness amid all the bourgeois memorabilia. Wherever I might find them, however unsuitable, I made them useful by a simple shift. The obvious analogy is with music. Did you mean gutter or guitar. Like cabbage or collage. The book was a sort of protection because it had a better plot. If any can be spared from the garden. They hoped it would rain before somebody parked beside that section of the curb. The fuchsia is a plant much like a person, happy in the out-of-doors in the same sun and breeze that is most comfortable to a person sitting nearby. We had to wash the windows in order to see them. Supper was a different meal from dinner. Small fork-stemmed boats propelled by wooden spoons wound in rubber bands cruised the trough. Losing its balance on the low horizon lay the vanishing vernal day.

I know of no other poet of my generation – & perhaps only Jennifer Moxley from among younger writers – who could write a phrase such as “vanishing vernal day.” This is just one of dozens of small, almost intimate details in this paragraph alone that render Hejinian unmistakable as a poet, & which together account for the passionate advocacy her poetry inspires.

What interests me here, first, is the absence of any formal system for the incorporation of new material into the piece. Six of the eight new sentences in this seventh section are introduced in pairs – in the book’s first paragraph, however, there was just one pair, plus another group of three clustered together, while in the eighth paragraph, all new sentences appear by themselves, singletons of new data & context. And of course, after the 37th paragraph, all additional paragraphs can contain only new writing.

In the seventh paragraph, the new material transforms the section’s beginning and end, but makes relatively modest interventions during the main body of the text. The most significant of these latter insertions is a sentence (plus two words) positioned between two sentences that were built around uses of the word “ruin.” Where in 1980, the text made a sharp turn precisely at the point of the two meanings assigned to “ruin,” in 1987 these meanings function far more softly, echoing their common moment.

Three sentences can be read as alluding to the phenomena of heat-based mirages rising up of the pavement:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The explicit new second sentence of the paragraph, which sets up the structure for the image schema – the length & detail of this sentence are necessary if the paragraph is to intelligibly re-invoke this construct later with shorter, more brief sentences
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>A sentence one-quarter of the way through the paragraph that reverses the point-of-view, focusing instead on how the narrator is “hypnotized” by the waves of the mirage
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The final sentence in the paragraph, a moment of closure radically different from the 1980 homily
A fourth sentence is also plausible if one incorporates “The sky droops straight down” into this same image schema. Thus a point of reference that was not even hinted at in the 1980 version of the paragraph becomes the controlling image schema for its 1987 incarnation. This transformation is not insignificant. The nature of this paragraph has not been “updated,” but completely re-envisioned by the process. The frame of late ‘40s radio dramas – which then models the role given over to family stories in the 1980 version of the poem is far less of a master paradigm for the paragraph, replaced in fact by the presence of mirages. While its own juxtaposition to family narratives has not changed in the slightest, its position overall within the paragraph redefines the meaning of that juxtaposition.

There are, of course, several other things going on here, more or less at the same time. Two of the eight new sentences – “lobes of autobiography” & the question “Are we likely to find ourselves” – function as metacommentary on the process of My Life itself. The sentence concerning “small fork-stemmed boats” can be read – although I’m suspicious of this as the scale seems wrong – as related to the narrative of childhood engineering, damming the gutters, that is constructed via several sentences of the 1980 version of this paragraph.

Also of considerable interest to me are the two words now added to the final phrase of what had originally been the seventh sentence: “without rift.” I think that it is possible to interpret that sentence in just that way, so that these words add relatively little to what has already been written. But it is also possible, or at least was in 1980, to see in that image of the child the twin masks of theater – comedy & tragedy – which then allude back again to the image of “radio nights.” Here again, Hejinian’s intervention mutes or thwarts that reading – it’s a different text in 1987, with connotations distributed accordingly.

Both versions of My Life are remarkable works, although I have a personal bias toward the earlier version that is really an allegiance to the intensity of my first full reading of it on an airplane. Potentially, a project of this sort is infinite in the sense that it never need end so long as the poet herself continues to live & write. Hejinian did continue the actual process for some time after the release of the Sun & Moon edition, although no later version has been published.

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Thursday, January 02, 2003

Some works appear destined to change one’s mind.

It took me several months to get around to reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life when it was first published by Burning Deck in 1980 because my initial reaction thumbing through the small volume was negative. It felt far too much to me like gazing into a mirror – as though Hejinian had dutifully plagiarized my own approach to the new sentence from Ketjak, perhaps with less use of found materials, using My Life’s outer structural elements of one paragraph for every year in this unusual autobiography & one sentence for every paragraph – thus 37 paragraphs each containing 37 sentences – to construct a work that looked different, but which really differed principally through an uncritical approach to the question of autobiography.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had a less-than-positive initial reaction to Hejinian’s writing only to revise my opinion completely soon thereafter. When, sometime in the early 1970s, Occurrence editor John Wilson first had Hejinian send me a packet of writing, I’d recognized instantly the strong sense of style, but had felt that it sought out lushness for its own sake – and I wrote her pretty bluntly to say so. When I got back a letter that took my grumpy misreading seriously but didn’t back off from her aesthetic commitments, I realized I was “misunderestimating” her indeed. As I was aware that I had had similar responses at first to other poets whose work later became exceptionally important to me – Clark Coolidge would be a case in point – I decided to just hold off until I got a better sense of things. This was true of both her work initially and later of My Life.

It was through the poetry of another writer about whom I might make that same “lushness for its own sake” charge that I came to reassess Hejinian’s approach to poetry generally – Ken Irby. The fourth issue of Hejinian’s chapbook series, the original Tuumba Press project, was Irby’s Archipelago, published (it says on its intensely blue cover) in November 1976. One month earlier, however, I’d run into Hejinian operating a stall at a small press fair at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, with this book front & center on her table. Irby is nothing if not a poet of the ear, perhaps the purest example of this of this obvious possibility within Projectivist poetics, and he’s something of an acquired taste. By 1976, I’d been a serious Irby aficionado for over a decade & felt at times (as I still do) as though I were a member of some secret society: The Serious Readers of Kenneth Irby.

On the spot, Hejinian & I got deeply into a wonderful conversation about Irby’s poetry & realized who each other was – I mumbled some sort of apology over my intemperate response to her material (which, as I recall, she deflected, saying that it was entirely unnecessary, a judgment more generous than true). Relatively soon after, Hejinian & her partner (now husband) Larry Ochs moved south from Willits to Berkeley & I got to know both them as two of the most probing, inventive, talented & imaginative people on the planet. Each of her first four books – A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking; A Mask of Motion; Gesualdo; & Writing is an Aid to Memory – had been so utterly different that I believed I could not, in fact, prejudge this one on a thumb-through. So when I didn’t immediately respond well to My Life, my reaction was to set aside until some time when I could look at it again with fresh eyes.

That opportunity came on a transcontinental flight back from the East Coast to San Francisco early in 1981. I got into my seat, buckled up, pulled the book from the Danish book bag that was my constant companion in those years & did not set the volume down again until I finished it, literally as the plane was making its approach into SFO. Thus I read it for the first time in a single sitting, something I never do with anything beyond a 20-page chapbook. That reading is still, to this day, the last book with which I’ve done this.

My Life was not, in fact, the book I’d expected (or dreaded) at all. Where Ketjak is very much an outward facing text, My Life operates by facing (as would any memoir) backwards. This focus transforms the project entirely. Where Ketjak uses repetition to make “the new sentence” possible, by literally breaking apart the residual narrative instincts in my work, My Life proceeds by simply assuming the new sentence as a given & using repetition thematically, both within the body of the text proper and in the epigrams that head up every paragraph. Where the structure of Ketjak is accumulative and essentially musical in its movements, My Life functions as a series of compositions all roughly equal in size – there is a logic (a narrative dimension that is only half hidden) both within & between paragraphs. The requirement of composing such structural equivalents – their formalism is reminiscent of a sonnet sequence, although, in the 1980 edition, of 37-sentence prose sonnets – places enormous compositional demands on Hejinian, which she moves through with a sweep & grace that is stunning, one jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring turn after another. Even for someone thoroughly knowledgeable as to the implications of langpo in 1981, someone who had in fact read all of Hejinian’s earlier volumes, My Life is one of those reading experiences that very thoroughly cleaves the world into before & after.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Murat Nemet-Nejat suggests two complicating factors for the question of context – the reader’s contribution and the issue of what he characterizes as divided loyalties:

Dear Ron,

I just read Gary [Sullivan]'s observations on "context" and Jonathan Swift for the first time. Since Swift – particularly "A Modest Proposal" and "A Tale of the Tub" - had a strong effect on my prose writing, and my views on context relate to my reading of Swift, I would like to chip in.

Context can also be tackled from the reader's point of view, his or her historical moment, which makes him or her read, misread, reimagine, etc., that text. This is not a matter of personal taste or subjectivity, but a dynamic between two historical moments. In this way context is not seen temporally or historically, but as a fluid continuum, constantly changing.

The originating occasion of "A Modest Proposal" was the Irish famine. But as important to me was that Swift was a man of "divided loyalties," an Irishman making his fortunes in the English capital. Is it possible that the ambiguity
Gary sees in the tone (seriousness) of Swift's writing, does he really mean it, the savagery and savage logic of the piece, its madness, are due to this ambivalence of divided loyalty. Swift is attacking the English, while he is offering Irish children as sacrificial lambs.

As a writer, I am very interested in the questions of accent, of divided loyalty in our time. Am I merely misreading Swift, or out of my historical moment I am seeing a deeper context in Swift's work?
Don't the two contexts merge into a new one?

Purely as a writer, what I find striking in "A Modest Proposal" is how, following the structures, "logic" of the English enlightenment (of whom Samuel Johnson, a hater and despiser of the Irish, is the "purest" example), Swift creates a counter-text, a mad text, a parody and self parody. Is this not the essence of what experiment in poetry is? Is that not what, for example, the Bernstein's poem which you mention does?

My best. Happy new year.   

Murat Nemet-Nejat


Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Waking this morning at 6:00 to write three pages of Zyxt, the last section of The Alphabet, out in the notebook – it will probably translate down into a single page of typescript when I get to that – leaves me drained, exhausted. The process only took an hour, maybe 45 minutes, once I subtract the time it took to rise, brush my teeth & shuffle downstairs.

I began with a sentence describing a scene from a dream, not one I had last night, but rather the night before, that was still nagging at me. I had described the dream yesterday afternoon to Krishna, who commented “Well, that’s a nightmare,” though it had not felt like one to me. It had seemed more strange than repellant. Because I had described it to her yesterday, I retained enough of the detail to sketch out what I wanted this morning, then proceeding from my Palm Pilot to add an additional 23 sentences from the 156 currently stored there for just this purpose, plus two others I wrote on the spot because they seemed necessary. It will all appear as a single stanza.

Perhaps because of all the blogging I’ve done of late, I was paying attention in the back of my mind as I worked as to why I was placing this or that sentence into the specific sequence as I did, recalling Chris Stroffolino’s words about the nature of meaning, thinking (quite vaguely, I must admit) that I was after what I could only call – at least at this close proximity –a music of emotions I had some sense of attempting to orchestrate.

When I initially write (or, as I often think of it, “collect”) sentences that I might use in work, the process often feels pretty casual – there is, after all, no requirement that I actually use one if later it doesn’t feel right or I can’t find the appropriate position for it in my work. Often such sentences are things I’ve heard, or (more often) variations on things I’ve heard. I can collect these sentences in the middle of business meetings without losing the thread of discussion & have even composed in the middle of eye surgery. But the process seldom has the “feeling tone” of writing, as such.

Putting sentences together, on the other hand, is heavy lifting, an exceptionally intense process that I can’t do every day – unless of course I have set up some system to enable that (the exact same system I’m using these days for the blog). Which is why, when I was asked/told by that questioner earlier this year that my work was all revision, it did not ring true. No, this putting together is for me the true act of writing. Everything else is adjunct.

I chose the 23 sentences I ended up using from the oldest of my collection of “raw” material – going through maybe one-third of the total group at least casually before I honed in on the ones I wanted to use. One sentence that I’d initially thought to use, I held back – it comes to close to the territory of the dream and would make more sense to me to put it into Zyxt later, when it will serve not only all of its internal functions & whatever other local ones I decide that I want it to play, but also to harken back to this particular instance of the dream. Yet that sentence deferred is itself perhaps six months old & could easily be another six months older before it gets used.

Of the 23 collected sentences, I made changes in no more than six in incorporating them here. Most were minor corrections – and awkward phrasing or a missing word – but in one I added a single word that I’d not thought of previously that made the sentence suddenly lock into the “music of emotions” I was after. That one word made me feel enormously happy – it proved as important as the raw sentence itself – which was interesting in part because this is a relatively somber moment in the work and I was able to work on that while experiencing a very different sense toward the writing itself.

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Monday, December 30, 2002

Sometime today, this blog will greet its 10,000th visitor. For a genre like poetry in which a turnout of 50 people to a reading is considered a smashing success, this seems remarkable.

2002 will be remembered as the Year of the Blog because, if for no other reason, political bloggers (especially Josh Marshall) were the ones who first noticed & broadcast Trent Lott’s outrageous comments at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, which led ultimately to his resignation as President of the Senate. As the blogging phenomenon expands to a point where there are now just under one million blogs worldwide – three other members of my own extended family have blogs – it makes sense that some will focus on poetry & poetics.

When I started at the very end of August, there were relatively few weblogs with any sort of announced focus around poetry, most notably Brian Kim Stefans' Free Space Comix & Laurable’s weblog portion of her web site devoted to recordings of poetry readings. Blogs such as those belonging to Brandon Barr & Jill Walker had a relationship to writing, but – like many early blogs – were primarily extensions of an interest in electronic media per se: blog theory.

Since September, quite a number of poetry-centric blogs have started up, some of them really excellent. Here is a list of the blogs that I check at the very least a few times each week.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Elsewhere (Gary Sullivan)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Equanimity (Jordan Davis)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Free Space Comix: The Blog (Brian Kim Stefans)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jill/Txt (Jill Walker)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jonathan Mayhew’s Blog
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Laurable.Com
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lester’s Flogspot (Patrick Herron’s poetry sock puppet)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lime Tree (K. Silem Mohammad)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Texturl (Brandon Barr)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Tijuana Bible of Poetics (Heriberto Yepez)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ululations (Nada Gordon)
Blogging has even become slightly controversial on the Poetics List. Some people there seem to think that critical discourse has to follow an either/or model of communication, whereas it seems to me quite obvious to a both/and system in much the same way that both the poetry reading and the poetry book have concrete value for poetry. Blogging seems no more of a threat to listserv discussions than it does to the academy itself.

The blog as diary seems to me of little interest. But blogging as a form of intellectual discipline has great value. I’ve thought more concretely than I otherwise could have about any number of issues over the past four months as a result of this blog. I’ve increased my own reading, and gone in some directions that I would not have otherwise taken. There are some poets whose work I might only have glanced at – Joseph Massey & Richard Deming, for example – without the discipline of the blog. And others whose contributions I might not have thought through nearly as thoroughly as I have – George Stanley, for instance, or Jennifer Moxley. Many of the emails & other communications I’ve received as a result of various blogs have been enormously instructive.

These thoughts occur to me as 2003 approaches concerning blogging and poetry:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The number of poetry-centered blogs can only grow and, as it does, the audience for any given approach to such blogs will be forced, simply by the limits of time & attention, to divide. Thus are tendencies born. It will be interesting to see what the terrain looks like one year from now.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>To date, most if not all poetry-related blogs have come out of the broad spectrum of post-avant literary traditions. This may be because such writing has a critical tradition that is not only an adjunct of the process of tenure.
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>One visible gap to date with regards to poetry blogs appears to be that very old one: gender. Of the eleven blogs listed above, nine are by men. I don’t see any inherent reasons for this gap, although I wouldn’t want to underestimate the number and kinds of distractions & responsibilities with which women in today’s society must contend. But the form itself would seem to have several real advantages that might prove attractive to women, the ability to bypass male editors being only one.

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Sunday, December 29, 2002

It was a bad dream that we were at war. I was involved with a company that held some support function, not involved directly in the fighting. But then I was near the front lines at night, crouching in a field of stones near barbed-wire. To our left were some buildings. Behind me, “our side” sent missiles into the distance – explosions briefly illumined the horizon. The “other side” sent their missiles in our direction. We watched them sail overhead, some further, some closer. Then I remember watching one the way, as a boy, I would watch a fly ball coming in my own direction, aware of just how little time remained before it arrived, realizing it would be very close, so close that I could not tell which way to duck. Something struck me at the base of my neck. “I’m hit!” I shouted. But there was no damage. I can still move. There’s no blood, no pain.

Then a large airplane appeared overhead. “There they are,” someone shouted, as though we’d expected this. The plane’s belly opened and a missile rocketed down into the complex of buildings just on the far side of the barbed wire. An explosion went up on its far side. In its windows now, I could see a young man in his twenties, surrounded by small children. Their aspect looked “vaguely Asian.” He opened the window to let some of the smoke billow out. “Get out” I yelled as did the others I heard around me. “No,” he hollered in return. Then the fire reached a flashpoint & they all disappeared.

I woke, feeling ragged after a night such as that, & went down to my study. At first, I read through the latest issue of Overland, an Australian journal the likes of which we no longer possess here in the U.S. of A. It’s a quarterly, devoted in large part to politics, but with a healthy dose of fiction, cultural criticism and, in the brief period I’ve read it, poetry. The poetry editor is, or has been, Pam Brown, a fine poet herself and a woman at ease with all modes of post-avant writing. This is her last issue in this capacity – she has a “farewell” note, as in fact does Ian Syson, editor-in-chief, who is himself stepping down.

What I read this early in the morning is a “lecture” by Bob Ellis on “The Age of Spin,” focusing on Australia’s culpability in the broader, US-led assault of Islamic peoples, on the use of such terms as “weapons of mass destruction” and the convenient ways in which we defined them, or “chemical weapons” & the relationship of that concept, say, to the cocktail administered to prisoners at execution. “We live in Orwellian times,” Ellis concludes.

His essay reminds me of my dream, or of the sour way I characterized the Bush administration at a Christmas party the other day – “taking the neo- out of neo-fascist.” My own sense of depression at the state of the American polis seems limitless these days. Even as I’ve lived long enough to know that things will eventually swing “back” again from the current reactionary state of affairs, I have to recognize that each swing of the pendulum over the past 30 years has always been part of a larger rightward course. Bill Clinton was in many respects a Nixon Republican when it came to domestic policy – and that was the “progressive” portion of his platform. “When does it become Germany? Will we recognize when it’s 1933? When do we have to choose exile?” a friend asked at dinner last night. She’s an official in the Democratic Party, her husband a well-placed corporate lawyer. They have a son about to graduate college – these are not “kids” posing such questions.

I thumb through the remainder of Overland. It’s the “bumper summer” issue – but I have to remember that it is summer there right now. The issue is rich & I only touch on a few pieces at the moment. It has, for example, some fine poems by one Eric Beach, whose work I know not at all, plus a good deal of other poetry. There are several reviews of poetry and a large essay by John Kinsella – listed on the masthead as a correspondent – on the shifting relations between the city and “the bush” that touches on the relation of urban poetics to those of rural communities, citing everyone from Wordsworth to Les Murray. Kinsella’s essay touches on the work of Dorothy Hewett, an Australian poet, playwright & essayist who passed away earlier this year. That is her image on the cover of Overland, looking quite grand at the age of 79 – her life and work are the subject of three other pieces in the issue. I make a mental note to look for her poems.

Overland makes me realize just how much we lack a magazine of its obvious impact in the United States. The tendency toward weeklies in the U.S. bespeaks our restlessness & the progressive journals range between silent (The American Prospect, to pick one) to reactionary (The Nation) when it comes to their general approaches to literature & the radical idea that it might be incorporated into the American experience. The great irony of a weekly in the age of the internet, is that it will always be “out of date” whenever it arrives. Instead, what we get are publications like The Atlantic, so poorly conceived & edited that they serve as their own parody, issue after issue.

So, looking for respite, I pick up Niedecker’s Collected Works & find myself immediately at this juncture:

J.F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs

To stand up

black-marked tulip
not snapped by the storm
“I’ve been duped by the experts”

and walk
the South Lawn

Thirty-odd years later, there is still debate as to whether or not Kennedy was, in fact, “duped by the experts” – the implications concerning his hold on the executive branch are, after all, damning – or merely used this explanation to distance himself from the political fallout that attended the Bay of Pigs fiasco. So here is Niedecker using a natural image – the tulip – as a metaphor for political activity.

But I don’t think of Niedecker as a “political poet,” and on the facing page starts one of her longest poems, “Wintergreen Ridge,” which includes an account of a visit from Basil Bunting:

      When visited
             by the poet

From Newcastle on Tyne
      I neglected to ask
             what wild plants

have you there
      how dark
             how inconsiderate

of me
      Well I see at this point
             no pelting of police

with flowers

There is no escaping it.* Even a poet as removed from the daily life of cities as Niedecker, Objectivism’s one true “poet of the bush,” cannot get away from the politics of the 1960s as they enveloped the nation. Any more than we can the misdeeds of our own “elected” officials at the cusp of 2003.

* “What Western peoples might find strange, Kawhlānī tribesmen taken for granted, namely, that politics and poetics are inseparable.”  Stephen C. Caton, in “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemini Tribe (University of California Press, 1990): p. 155.

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