Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Half with editing, half with a strange humor, The Poker 2 has arrived at the door. The busy retro cover of the first issue has been replicated, suggesting that it will be a theme, billboarding not merely the contents, but also the editors – Dan Bouchard & a roster of seven “contributing” souls – & even the P.O. box in Cambridge. As with the first issue, it’s a breath-taking array of literary riches:


  • Rachel Blau DuPlessis Draft 57: Workplace: Nekuia
  • new work by Kit Robinson, Ange Mlinko, K. Silem Mohammad, David Perry, Joseph Torra & others
  • a substantial & timely collection of poems from nine contemporary Iraqi poets, several of whom write about the first Iraq war ten years ago
  • an essay by Jennifer Moxley
  • reviews by Bill Corbett, Noah Eli Gordon & Bouchard himself

To top it all off, the back cover reprints Denise Levertov’s “In California During the Gulf War,” which all too accurately concludes:


   And when it was claimed

the war had ended, it had not ended.


With all these riches, the work I turn to first belongs to a someone whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met, Merrill Gilfillan. I knew of Gilfillan originally as a poet who had made what to this day is hands-down the finest translation that I’ve ever read of the very first prose poems, Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit – though it’s never been published to my knowledge in book form & my hand-me-down 25-year-old photocopy is getting quite ratty. Gilfillan’s translations made it possible to understand Baudelaire’s enthusiastic proclamation of Bertrand as the progenitor of a new form. So I would pay attention to Gilfillan’s work in little magazines, mostly, (which didn’t occur all that often since, outside of one eight year stint in New York, Gilfillan has mostly lived in places like Montana, Nebraska & Colorado) until I happened to pick up & read Burnt House to Paw Paw, the finest meditative prose on nature by anyone not named Thoreau I’ve ever come across. From that point forward, I’ve been hooked. I will read anything by the man I can get my hands on & I have yet to be disappointed.


Bull Run in October” is a 12-page meditative poem in three parts loosely centered around the Civil War site that sits in the Northern Virginia suburbs just south of DC. Like so many battles of that conflict, this one had two names, the northern one for the geographic features of the site, Bull Run, the southern one for the nearest town, Manassas.* Because Manassas Junction was a critical railway crossroads on the path to Richmond, it was the occasion for two major battles, the first on 21 July 1861, when the North discovered to its surprise that the war was going to be long, bloody & costly – and that the 90-day conscription originally issued for troops was going to prove inadequate – the second in August of the following year, when the Union troops found themselves having to attempt to replicate the defensive stand made during the first battle by Jackson’s “Stonewall” in order to buy time so that they could escape after dark. Because of the two battles – the first represented a major turning point in the war, the second was far bloodier, with over 25,000 dead & wounded – this simple terrain has become one of the most thoroughly documented landscapes in American history.


Gilfillan touches on the war, it may even have brought him to Manassas in the first place, but his focus initially is on the natural environment, specifically a single persimmon tree on Matthews Hill.** 


      Lone persimmon,

Matthews Hill:


on a low Virginia knoll:



                  fruit bright high

in the crown.


When the lecture group leaves

I’ll toss a stick and knock some down


(VMI boys, that’s my guess, professor

in a Kazootie ballcap

                                over by the Union guns).



resting in its spindly lee.



food for (smooth) (Virginia) gods.


This section, the first of six in the first of the three numbered sequences that make up the poem, makes an interesting set of demands on the reader’s knowledge. It helps to know – though, here at least, I don’t think it’s required – some Civil War history, native plants well enough to recognize their formal names, that VMI is the Virginia Military Institute, something on the order of a military finishing school, plus enough of retro Americana kitsch to recognize that the Kazootie ballcap is a reference not just to Rootie Kazootie, but to the exaggerated beak of his baseball cap.


Very little of which ultimately matters, in the sense that it’s nice to know it, but more important – far more important – to read close enough to recognize the instant of utter stillness that is both figured and achieved in that next-to-last stanza. It’s an intriguing formulation – a lee by definition is a protection from the wind, a form of shelter, but spindly suggests quite strongly I think that it’s the tree Gilfillan intends by this phrase. Which means that the term now divided into its roots references the fruit, not the tree.


The text is elegant & economic. It’s a perfect example of description build around a single detail. The next four sections of the first part of the poem can be read as a series of moves back & outward – the sequence is almost cinematic in its deployment of information, like a camera pulling back from a speck on a shirt collar to gradually reveal an entire vista.


The last section of the first part, however, reverses the direction, in that it starts with what Gilfillan calls “multiples” – thrushes, hickories, oaks – contrasting them precisely with the singularity of the lone persimmon. This sets up a logic that will be reiterated through the next two sequences of the poem. Thus, the last line of the first section – “No single thing.” – evolves to become at the end of the second sequence “No single stranded thing,” and at the end of the third “No single stranded cut-off thing.”


On the surface, “Bull Run in October” has the look of a New American poem, and there are passages (“VMI boys, that’s my guess, professor / in a Kazootie ballcap”) that sound more than a little like Paul Blackburn. Yet this use of opposition & reiteration plays out on so many levels – the stand of oaks is atop Chinn Ridge, thus on the far side of the battlefield from the persimmon tree – that I don’t think it can be at all accidental. It is a level of complexity that I don’t recall from Gilfillan’s 1997 Satin Street & a degree of formal architecture virtually unheard of among the New Americans. It’s the sort of structure I associate in my own mind more with the stories of Borges or the metafictions of Steve Katz than with, say, Oulipo or the old patternism that gets called new formalism by wannabe premoderns. Gilfillan, at least in this one poem, appears to be doing something completely new. Given that his choice of a Civil War battlefield for what might be termed a landscape poem presents both something characteristically framed as historic and something else often (too often) characterized as “timeless,” Gilfillan’s ability to arrive with something completely different is a tour de force worth acknowledging.


I recall how, reading Baudelaire’s prose poems – which (unlike Bertrand) Baudelaire knew in advance to be both prose & poetry – & realizing that Baudelaire was clearly counting sentences so that more than a few turned out to be 14 sentence poems, I got so excited I could barely stand it. That’s a little how I feel reading “Bull Run in October.”







* Southern troops were welcome in the cities of the South. The National Parks Service uses the Southern name, presumably on the theory that this was the term adopted by the local community.


** My sense, from the one time I took my boys to Manassas a few years ago, is that most casual visitors to the park remain entirely on the taller Henry Hill, so – like the students from the Virginia Military Institute – for Gilfillan to place himself opposite is already to position himself more deeply within the historic framework than would be typical.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

It’s hard for an outsider to know just whom Charles Tomlinson might be. On the one hand, he’s the British poet who edited the Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams, the author of the extraordinary American Scenes*, and someone whom the likes of Robert Creeley has been known to speak of favorably. With Octavio Paz, Jacques Roubaud & Edoardo Sanguineti, Tomlinson partook in one of the first truly international collaborative writing projects, Renga.


On the other hand, there is this writer of crabbed occasional verse, technically adequate but unambitious to the point of pathology, whose poetry these days is most likely to appear in the United States in the militantly reactionary – both politically & aesthetically – journal, The New Criterion, alongside the likes of Roger Shattuck, John Haines, William Logan and (another author who should know better) Guy Davenport.


Reading Tomlinson’s Selected Poems, as I have been doing for over a year now, is ultimately one of the more disappointing engagements with a poet’s lifework I can recall. Outside of the poems from American Scenes, especially the section of that book that carries that for its own title, there is very little in the Selected that warrants the effort from any perspective beyond, say, an anthropological reading, as if to answer the question why. Tomlinson, the Americanist, the modernist & internationalist, appears to have been the aberration – a random pulse in what otherwise has been a flatline performance stretching over nearly 50 years.


This is not to say that there are not some other poems worth reading here, but rather that those that do repay the effort, especially among the later works, such as “Writing on Sand,” “The Tax Inspector” or “Far Point,” invariably suggest a return to the flat, direct pseudo-imagist mode of American Scenes. For one thing, Tomlinson’s ear seems to desert him the instant any line gets to eight syllables – simply excising the works that use longer lines (nearly half of the Selected) would have yielded a far stronger book. But even then one would still have to confront & deal with the crushing sense of the occasional. If ever there were a poet of tourism, of the weekend & of the summer holiday from teaching, Tomlinson is it.


It’s curious & sad ultimately. Reading the Selected is literally to watch a man who had some glimmer of talent waste his life. Born in 1927, Tomlinson is part of the same age cohort as the core of the New American poetry – Ginsberg, Creeley, Ashbery, Eigner all were born at virtually the same moment. With his interest in &, to some degree, ear for American poetry, Tomlinson might have been the person who could have bridged the great gap between the alternative tradition in American literature & the very similar chasm in British letters that puts Bunting, Finlay, Mac Diarmid & David Jones off to one side, while pretending that dullards like Ted Hughes represent anything more than the death of empire. Had someone, anyone, been able to construct that bridge in the 1960s, younger writers, like Raworth & Prynne, might have received the treatment their work warranted. As it is, British poets with any life in them have had to struggle in circumstances with far fewer resources available to them than their counterparts over here.


I started Tomlinson’s Selected with great hopes. Now at least I feel I have an answer as to why he didn’t – couldn’t or wouldn’t – create that bridge when he had a chance. As it is, I do think that this is a book that younger poets should read, not as literature but as a cautionary tale: this could happen to you.








* Having even the most well-intentioned British poet edit Williams’ Selected, rather than, say, Creeley or Ginsberg or Blackburn or whomever of all the dozens of American acolytes WCW had within that same generation as Tomlinson, is a notably curious choice, given the vehemence of Williams’ own antipathy toward a view of American literature as a tributary of what Charles Bernstein likes to call “the island poets.” Tomlinson’s 1985 edition replaced one that had originally been edited by Williams himself in 1949, and updated somewhat after his death with work from his last 14 years. The earlier edition had similarly been framed in as conservative a tone as New Directions could muster, with an introduction by Randall Jarrell.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Mea culpa for calling Joseph Duemer “Jim” on Saturday. It took me awhile to figure out why people were referring to me as “Rick.” There is a Rick Silliman – when I first moved to Pennsylvania in 1995, he lived directly across the street from me. We both have kids named Jesse, though his is his daughter while mine is my son. We use the same pediatrician & pharmacy, making life for the two of them a little more complicated. It turns out that we’re cousins, but you need a pretty detailed genealogy chart to find the two of us on it (& I’m still there only through my grandfather’s adoption). Within a year, he moved about six blocks south & I moved four blocks east.

If there is a single comprehensive list of links to post-avant poetry bloggers, I haven’t found it. The one that Gary Sullivan has on his blog site is as good as any:


Brandon Barr
Jim Behrle
Josh Corey
Jordan Davis
Alan de Niro
Joseph Duemer
John Erhardt
Ryan Fitzpatrick
Drew Gardner
Jean Gier
Nada Gordon
Daphne Gottlieb
Henry Gould
Gabriel Gudding
Kali Gura
David Henry
David Hess
Jack Kimball
Anastasios Kozaitis
Judy MacDonald
Mainstream Poetry
Joseph Massey
Jonathan Mayhew
Andrew Mister
Kasey Silem Mohammad
Hugh Nicoll
Erin Noteboom
Katherine Parrish
Nick Piombino
Angela Rawlings
Ron Silliman
Sandra Simonds
Robert Stanton
Brian Kim Stefans
Gary Sullivan
Eileen Tabios
Jill Walker
Heriberto Yepez
Stephanie Young
Tim Yu
Komnino Zervos



I’ve updated Jim Behrle’s URL in the above. Jim changes his web address as often as some folks change their trousers. I also switched the link for Heriberto Yepez away from the defunct Tijuana Bible of Poetics to his bilingual Border Blogger2. Except that when I typed in the URL from memory, I omitted the “h” that goes before, which then took me serendipitously to yet another bilingual Tijuana poet, Raul Yepez, who has his links carefully organized by geographic region of Mexico.


Technorati makes it possible for someone to see just who has created links to a particular web page. While a number of the links to my blog come predictably from the same list Gary compiled above, others originate from outside that circle, some of them from way outside that circle. Here are some examples:


  • 2BlowHards: “two graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy Ivy educations.” Michael & Friedrich seem more thoughtful than blowhards, though they are fairly conservative – they’re currently interviewing mathematician & architecture critic Nikos Salingaros, a man who argues that Prince Charles is a major figure in architecture.
  • Gideon Strauss: “worldview revivalism, neocalvinist unapologetics, & zeitgeist surfing.” What I know about Gideon is that he appears to be a friend of my nephew Daniel. As Jonathan Mayhew, I think it was, noted about Daniel, we don’t share the same politics or religion. The same holds with regards to Gideon.
  • This Writing Life: a blog by playwright, novelist, screenwriter & teacher Charles Deemer. This very much the view of a “working writer.” Deemer & I were obviously in Berkeley during the same years & know some people in common (Gary Gach!), but I’m not sure we’ve ever met.
  • Rational Parenting: which is exactly what it sounds like. I like their ideas about taking coercion out of parenting, but I’m not certain why my blog (or Mike Snider’s formalist blog) should show up in their blogroll.
  • Odd Things in Pitt’s Libraries: This at least sounds like me. Like Rational Parenting, this site is just what it says it is. One unexpected benefit, however, is that it has some good links to baseball blogs (I am to baseball what Gary Sullivan is to Bollywood).
  • Hiving: a website from Bay Area poet Jean Chu. It’s good to see other poets with different aesthetics starting to show up as bloggers.
  • The Wily Filipino: Sunny Vergara’s site. He is an anthropology & Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State, the author of Displaying Filipinos.
  • Twists and Turns: a site by Michael Gates, free-lance business writer & editor, as well as a creative one. I wonder if Gates looks as much like Michael J. Fox in person as he does in that photo.
  • Assorted Grotesqueries: a lit-crit site by Daniel Sendecki. In spite of the title, it is the most elegantly designed site on this entire list. Sendecki also has a pretty decent idea about contemporary poetry – it’s rare to find somebody who can discuss Stephen Greenblatt and Steve McCaffery.
  • Raccoon: Notes and Scavengings: Jeremy Bushnell is into all things post-avant, from photocopier art to La Monte Young’s music. Bushnell is writing a serialized web novel – i.e., a novel more or less in blog form.
  • Drunken Phone Calls: truth in advertising.
  • We Write to Taste Life Twice: a blog of poetry by Crystal Lyn, who copyrights her work as “CLK,” but I don’t know what the K represents.
  • Black Spring: a collective website focusing on poetry & poetics. If I’m 1/10th of the poet this site claims I am, then I would be a very good poet indeed. The one participant I recognize is Steve Tills, whom I still think of as a Sonoma County poet, even though he now lives roughly 2,800 miles east of there.
  • Edits: a brand new poetry site by someone who posts as “Nashi.” Cf:

Climates facilitate ennui.

Here and here and herer.

  • Singing the Bite Me Song: Miasma is a grassroots journalist.
  • Diabetes Sucks: This is a poem / post-avant writing site that I think belongs to Don Cheney, a SoCal legend. There is a piece up there now called “Ron Silliman Bang.” I’m sure they mean it in a nice way.
  • Kelele: Actually one of my first links & I still don’t know who the mysterious U. Kelele is. In spite of that Hawai’in reference, we are told that Kelele is KiSwahili for shout. I would not be surprised if this blogger doesn’t go by the nickname Maz from time to time, but I can’t prove it.
  • Stockpile: basically a links site from Melissa Hardie. I was the first link.
  • Intelligent Worlds: a site about pretty much everything from Benjamin Seeberger, “a senior in university, in Chicago, IL.”


No doubt many of these blogs will eventually find their way into that first list above. Over the weekend, I saw Assorted Grotesqueries on Nick Piombino’s blogroll & the Wily Filipino on Tim Yu’s. Then Kasey Mohammad had them both, plus some other links I’d not seen before.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

K. Silem Mohammad has some interesting comments on my piece concerning H.D.’s “Helen.” In a slightly more skeptical mode, so does Henry Gould.


Sheer ego also suggests that when you’re at Kasey’s site, you should also scroll down & read / sing / memorize his two songs concerning this blog.

Saturday, May 03, 2003

Halvard Johnson no longer lives & teaches in Baltimore, but continues “serving the tri-state area” as the tag line on his email used to proclaim. Johnson is, as you may know, one of the most active poets on a couple of the listservs devoted to contemporary verse, often posting poems that, for one reason or another, he thinks we should be reading. As a rolling anthology, they’re intriguing, almost always worth the effort, but also not from any single aesthetic position or point of view. If Johnson has ulterior motives behind these posts, he does a great job of keeping the secret to himself.


I’ve known Johnson primarily as the author of four books that came out over a decade – more or less the 1970s – from New Rivers Press. That was a decade of high militancy amid poetry tendencies – the period when the Poetry Project Newsletter routinely removed certain language poets from the lists of contributors to little magazines – and Johnson’s poetry, which I would have characterized then as a softer version of the New American poetics of the two previous decades, was part of the landscape, but never aligned with any particular visible formation. That was, I now suspect, a reasonably accurate assessment. He was – still is – a complete independent as a poet.


Independence for a poet, as well as for a scholar, is not necessarily the easiest stance to take. Literary communities & networks form more or less naturally before anyone even plans them & create possible, sometimes probable, audiences for whatever. Just look at how rapidly the 50 or so active poetry bloggers have fallen into the process of referring obsessively back & forth to each other’s daily posts.* The impulse behind Johnson’s status as a loner may in fact have been a desire to travel – he’s logged in time everywhere from Turkey to Korea, Puerto Rico to Germany. But the consequence was that his work was produced in relative isolation from the vibrant scenes that were contesting public space. Having been in print, his books then went out of print & stayed that way until the Contemporary American Poetry Archive, a site set up to preserve “lost works,” made them all newly available over the web.


But as anyone who reads small presses knows, Johnson has continued to write & publish in journals since the 1970s. Books, however, appear to have been harder to come by. Which is why the inclusion of his Rapsodie espagnole on Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed) website from Espoo, Finland, is such very good news indeed. Talk about long overdue!


xPress(ed) is a site that publishes booklength works of “experimental” – its term – poetry in PDF files. It published 13 books last fall, and another ten this spring. Authors include Catherine Daly, Jesse Glass, Peter Ganick, Lewis Lacook, mIEKAL aND, Kari Edwards, Eileen “Peeps” Tabios, Sheila E. (for Everywhere) Murphy, Michael Basinski, Nico Vassilakis, Dan Raphael, Joel Chace & more.


Rapsodie espagnole is, by Johnson’s own description, “a found poem,” a work in 34 sections whose sentences are taken entirely from the English examples in an advanced Spanish language primer. If there are any rules beyond the constraints around Johnson’s source language, I can’t discern them. Here is section 7:


If I were you, I should decline the offer. She wanted to go shopping,

but he preferred to read the paper. Where do you spend the summer?

Who is it? It is they. The fact is that there is not enough for the two of you.

Before sitting down, I wiped the chair. On thinking it over, we have decided

he is not suitable. Put them there, don’t give them to me. How brown

you are getting! I am going to tell you the truth. It was as if the monkey

were human. Whenever I see him I give him a small coin. Where

is the chocolate? We have eaten it. There are Peter and Philip,

let’s go and invite them. We offered it to her. He entertains his friends

a great deal. He handed the list to the inspector. They took out

the necklaces and beads and showed them to the natives.

They showed them to them. She was so scared that her hair

stood on end. The nurse put a thermometer in his mouth and took

his temperature. He promised his wife he would buy her a new washing

machine. He promised it to her. In order to pay for it he borrowed

the money from his bank manager. It is impossible for us to accept

this ultimatum. They were shot at dawn. Why go on talking about it?

He thinks he’s handsome, but he isn’t. He is so kind-hearted! I told you so.

You cannot rely on him, believe me! We think it opportune to sell

all our shares in that company. I am surprised there are foreign tourists here.

They are everywhere. He thought he was so clever!


New Sentence Я Us! Johnson plays the pronouns into a comic series of exchanges, some light-hearted, others threatening. Individual sentences tend to be direct, but at times are just far enough “off” from idiomatic norms to give the reader that “dictated from Mars” feeling: How brown you are getting!


I have to admit I have always had an ambivalent relationship toward constructed texts of this sort, a feeling heightened now that the Ubu website seems to have decided that my own 2197 “anticipates, with its stock of phrases morphing and reappearing in different acrobatic poses throughout its pages, the preoccupation with dataflows, rhizomes and digital recurrence that has characterized much literature in the age of the internet.”** But 2197 was very much written the old-fashioned way, by looking at the materials at hand & figuring out in my head what should go next – its only quirk being that “the materials at hand” were restricted to one source sentence for syntax, one for vocabulary, determined mathematically from a core set of 169 sentences. My guess is that Johnson has proceeded through K.L.J. Mason’s Advanced Spanish Course in very much the same fashion, utilizing the “Practice Sentences for Translation into Spanish” as source material, but then just writing. I don’t think it’s possible – in the above section or elsewhere throughout these 34 single-stanza pieces of variable length – to have produced what we find here through a system. Johnson’s wit is too sharp, his timing too exact. It passes a variant of the Turing test for poetry that I call the Ginger Rogers test – Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards in high heels – if it’s this smooth, it wasn’t done by machine.


Consider, for example, some early systematic poems by Jackson Mac Low, such as those found in Stanzas for Iris Lezak, a 396-page work written by Mac Low in 1960 & published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press 12 years later***. Mac Low’s afterword on the method used in composing & performing Stanzas is over 20 pages long, but what is really noteworthy from the perspective of Halvard Johnson’s text some 43 years hence is how very awkward Mac Low’s pieces are – they don’t try to hide it & even revel in it to some degree. At the time it was something, however ungainly, nobody had every achieved before in writing. In contrast, Jackson’s Twenties, written in the late 1980s using “subjective” methods, are every bit as exploratory as Stanzas but infinitely smoother & sleeker. Twenties also passes the Ginger Rogers test. Rapsodie espagnole is thus a work far closer to Twenties than it is to Stanzas, even if the source language is derived from a single book.


My ambivalence, of course, is that same old one between composition as an individual process – that is, as a process channeled through (& thus controlled by) an individual – and the possibilities of, not automatic writing, but automated writing. There was a period a few years back when I wondered if Brian Kim Stefans would soon be able to generate a computerized booklength text every single afternoon, while still holding down whatever it is he does for a job. Since then I’ve gotten to know a little the large oeuvre of Alan Sondheim & the truly gigantic process that seems to surround Augie Highland. Highland appears able to generate a text as rapidly as some people breathe.


I don’t want to turn into a slightly pomo variation on Hilton Kramer’s caricature of criticism, shaking a raised finger & kvetching that young people these days need to sweat out every individual pixel. Yet I do value labor & intelligence absolutely – Johnson’s approach to his materials demonstrates plenty of both. It’s not, for example, a test case for the limits of procedure, but rather a deft & exceptionally clever application of the possibilities raised by this language. In this sense, Rapsodie is a reasonably close kin to Kit Robinson’s The Dolch Stanzas, another work written “the old-fashioned way” using a fixed vocabulary.


One significant difference between Rapsodie & Dolch or Twenties is that its fundamental kernel is the sentence, whereas the other two works come into focus at the word. Writing with the sentence as your unit is an extremely tricky & difficult process – not at all like putting word after word. Length, structure, sound, potential for referentiality all come into play in ways that are sometimes surprising. Given my own writing process – composing individual sentences & deploying them in works often months or even years later – this for me is the most fascinating part of Johnson’s process. I can speak from experience when I say that he really gets it & hits the right spots the way, say, a great jazz musician would all the way throughout this work.







* Trying to yoke an aesthetic tendency around Jim Behrle, K. Silem Mohammad, Sandra Simonds, Gabe Gudding, Laura Willey,  Heriberto Yepez, Nick Piombino, Nada Gordon & Jim Duemer may seem like an improbable undertaking, but each can now count at least 50 other bloggers who are probably intrigued at whatever else they might be writing.


** I will admit that I never thought of 2197 in such terms before reading this blurb.


*** Really useful project for Duration or Ubu or even xPress(ed): get the rights to digitize the entire Something Else catalog.

Friday, May 02, 2003

One poem from H.D.’s 1924 volume, Heliodora, seems to have stuck in my imagination. In the week or so since I first read it in my long march through Ms. Doolittle’s oeuvre, I’ve come back to it more than once. There is something about its tone that is uniquely – and deliberately – unattractive:




All Greece hates

the still eyes in the white face,

the lustre as of olives

where she stands,

and the white hands.


All Greece reviles

the wan face when she smiles,

hating it deeper still

when it grows wan and white,

remembering past enchantments

and past ills.


Greece sees unmoved,

God’s daughter, born of love,

the beauty of cool feet

and slenderest knees,

could love indeed the maid,

if only she were laid,

white ash amid funereal cypresses.


There is seething fury here that I have seen only in the poetry of Jack Spicer (and in his work only in the love poems of Language & Book of Magazine Verse), directed not at Helen, but toward Greece, a mass noun.


I’ve noted before that H.D. is perhaps the major modernist whose work I know least well, and my approach since I began reading Duncan’s H.D. Book (which turns out to be only incidentally and peripherally about H.D.) has been to read her words first, letting the critical materials come later. But it is interesting to note that this poem  was not one I came across when doing that superficial scan of modernism one gets in college, even at Cal, where the representative texts had invariably been the shorter imagist texts, such as “Oread.” Just by the number of commentaries posted for this one poem on Cary Nelson’s Modern American Poetry website, I can tell that the social history of the past 33 or so years has substantially revised upward the stock of “Helen.”


I’m not concerned – and not likely to become concerned, either – as to whether or not the figure of Helen here could be said to represent H.D.’s own mother or, more likely, her partner Bryher.* What concerns me instead is the tone, the how & why of it. I can’t think of any American poem that, by 1924, the year Heliodora was published in an edition of 520 copies, so thoroughly vilified a group of people. The closest might be some of Pound’s early work, which is rancorous enough, but lacks the absoluteness of “Helen.”


The absoluteness lies – & this is a rhetorical stroke of genius – not in what the speaker says but rather in the absoluteness of hatred ascribed to Greece: only death could modify its evident disgust & resentment. The structure of rhyme throughout the poem – there is a couplet in each stanza as well as other carefully placed rhymes & near-rhymes – is set up precisely to climax on the maid / laid pairing of the penultimate lines. Indeed, the last line prosodically makes a point of unsettling any possibility of closure – the final term cypresses contrasts aurally with virtually every previous word in the text, as does funereal also.


This degree of emotion in a poem is rare precisely because it borders on a taboo: the work of art as an act of violence. High modernism, of course, had its advocates of death & destruction, viz. Italian futurism, but that was an aestheticized mayhem, like explosions in slomo. “Helen” is personal. The anger is palpable but never directly expressed** – the combination renders it much more powerful. The contained fury of the text, accentuated by the very formality of its rhymes, feels like an energy that needs to go somewhere. Far from being a self-consuming artifact, “Helen” functions by acknowledging the tacit agreement of any author toward their reader – “do no harm” – and suggesting without saying so that this social contract could be put at risk.


“Classicism” serves a variety of functions for H.D. In some works, retelling old stories enables her to achieve a space that the Russian formalists would have characterized as “unmotivated” or plotless. Often, it provides a kind of buffer or privacy for Doolittle, enabling her to speak intimately & directly without having to address the issues implicit in being identified with the speaker – that’s part of its function here. Often too classical facades disguise the depth of her challenges to the received terrain of language. “Helen” is an immediate contemporary of Spring & All. In some ways, this short poem is just as extreme as any element of Williams’ work.








* Although, if the latter, it would be interesting to speculate on how much of the resentment this piece acknowledges toward “Helen” may have been based not on sexual orientation so much as on class. Great wealth is its own special curse.


** Consider, for the sake of contrast, Dylan’s antiwar anthem, Masters of War, no less eloquent in some ways, but far less subtle – and I’ll stand over your grave until I’m sure that you’re dead.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Another work in Raddle Moon 20 worth thinking more about is Robert Glück’s “The Visit,” a series of 12 prose meditations executed in – as well as on – a scrapbook purchased for “a dollar at an antique sale.” Each section accompanies a postcard of a scene in Japan, such as “THE GENERAL HEADQUARTERS OF THE ALLIED POWERS,” suggesting that it was produced initially during the occupation of that country by the U.S. et al after WW2. Maybe three or four pieces into these gorgeous & subtle works, I had an “aha” experience: this is the work that I had hoped W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn was going to be, but which I felt ultimately failed. And it made me think of the tension that exists between Sebald’s writing – or perhaps his writing as imagined by his advocates – and the collective project known now as New Narrative, a term I associate with Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Michael Amnasan, Camille Roy, Kathy Lou Schultz, Kevin Killian & others mostly (tho not exclusively) around San Francisco.*


Sebald, who was killed in an automobile accident in December 2001, was a German émigré to the United Kingdom whose novels became A Big Deal both in Britain & the U.S. just as he passed away. Some of his advocates were people whose literary judgment I trust – Gil Ott in particular – but a lot of it seemed to come from the same folks who pretend that Knopf is a serious publisher of poetry, for whom Sebald appears to have been a revelation of the possibility of plotless prose, something they could have discovered 80 years ago had they paid heed to Stein, Shklovsky & others. Reading Rings of Saturn after all the hype, I found myself wading in expecting a modern day Proust, only to discover that, at least in Michael Hulse’ translation, plotless prose was listless prose as well. It made me wonder why, for example, Sebald’s work has generally not been taken up in his native Germany & what the larger social dynamics behind his acceptance & even adulation in the U.S. & U.K. might imply.


Against that as a background, these twelve pieces by Glück are indeed a revelation. Both texts utilize images – Glück the twelve postcards against which (or perhaps around which) this work was conceived & executed, Sebald a series of illustrations – photographs, paintings, newspaper articles – some of which are discussed in some detail in the text. Glück’s use of imagery is consistently more challenging, as in the fourth section, above a postcard photograph of the resort town at Lake Ashi, seen from above (probably a photo taken from a helicopter out over the lake itself):


This photo documents our absence, but daydream, the amateur, recovers possibility:

   Today a child approached me on the dock. She was gap toothed and she held both hands out. I couldn’t tell if she was giving or asking. I split into red blue green sloppy registration. Sloppy registration and a lazy printer. This is quite a “modern” setting – even the distilled quaintness and low-tide flavors are modern if that means self-conscious. It smiled for the camera so often it couldn’t remember a normal expression, if normal means “not modern.”

   The breeze was salty, the scene itself typical of a rewrite. She wore a tiny indigo silk suit, that is, pants and jacket. I thought she probably came from a class above mine or at least a better department store. Beneath her lids Mr. Rabbit lifts his paw to strike. The amazed Fox raises his eyes and says, “—

   Stepchild, if she said a word it would be rampion. She was trying to assert a connection between us – I wondered if she was my daughter. She had the lean fingers and intricate ears some newborns have.


Rampion, a word one seldom sees apart from a menu. The piece works, in contrast with Sebald’s, precisely because there is no wastage. But it also works in contrast, say, to Chris Tysh’s “Disappearing Series,” precisely because the parts don’t fit neatly into a closed system. Each new detail opens a further vista. Nothing in the photograph implies the presence of an approaching child, yet that is the image that keeps the three final paragraphs of the piece from spinning out of orbit altogether. Yet the schema doesn’t restrict what occurs either. Thus, for example, the improbability of the word rampion, or the description of “intricate ears.” Even more jolting is the sudden naming of the addressee: Stepchild.


Glück even plays around with the question of representation a la Tysh in that second paragraph, but rather than turning back toward a set piece concerning referentiality, the question of the modernity in the camera’s elicited smile becomes the point of momentary focus.


In one way, “The Visit” replicates an experience that I’ve had with Glück’s work on several occasions – proceeding with a quietness that is completely disarming, it nonetheless surprises and expands my sense of what is possible. The other works in Raddle Moon offer an instructive contrast: all on the surface appear to be more transgressive, but I’m not convinced that any of them really are. Glück appears to have little or no interest in the flash or camp one associates, for example, with the plays of Kevin Killian or the sex tales of Dodie Bellamy. Yet the questions of identity surrounding the figure of the child in the piece above are no less charged, no more simple. It’s precisely Glück’s ability to demonstrate the range & depths available to a quieter register that first called into mind Sebald’s writing. Yet, unlike Rings of Saturn, there is nothing listless about Glück’s prose. If anything, it’s as exciting anything now being written.








* Some of the so-called New Formalists have adopted the appellation New Narrative as well. Neither term is accurate, although accuracy seems never to be much a value for those pre-romantics.