Wednesday, August 04, 2004

One work that is clearly not included in Tenney Nathanson’s forthcoming Erased Art is the seriously booklength poem, Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in My Mouth), which will be published by O Books. All of the signature elements of Nathanson’s poetry are visible: the southwest, the Whitmanesque line, the cultural & intellectual history, appropriation (Nathanson’s complied a list of “intertexts” that is three pages long, single spaced & the sources are telling: Gilbert Sorrentino, Katsuki Sekida on Zen training, Don DeLillo, Frank Norris, Hawthorne, William Burroughs, Norman Fischer . . .). Actually, the Zen elements here do feel new, or at least I’d noticed them as such in Erased Art (although one might argue that Zen is exactly what the concept of erased art amounts to).

By now the Whitmanesque line feels far less like Whitman & far more like Nathanson, whatever its heritage. Here is just one:

illuminated like shop windows use of borrowed power addicted to those blank and submits without illusion of the psyche empty time a strange historical progress like a warning indeed Baudelaire’s obsession cannot be interpreted.

I hope others will appreciate the irony of a period at the end of a stretch of non-prose like that as much as I do. Here Nathanson indicates as his “intertext,” Susan Buck-Morss’ The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, but the relationship between Buck-Morss’ temporal reconstruction of Benjamin’s writing and Nathanson’s poem – which might be said to see through its sources all the way back to Baudelaire – feels purely archaeological. My sense is that Nathanson’s relationship to all these works is not unlike Simon Perchik’s use of photography or the many ways in which Larry Eigner utilized PBS as an alternative social window through to turn his neo-Objectivist gaze. In Home on the Range, the intertexts feel less like sources and almost as tho they were angels particular to a given section of the poem. One might, as one can with Perchik & Eigner as well, question the range – his interests may not be yours & tho one notes (with something finely tuned midway between approval & horror) that Nathanson’s range is capable of including both Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers & Dean Ornish’s Eat More, Weigh Less, I wonder what 20 years hindsight will do to the relative prestige of many of these take-off or trigger texts, the majority of which will be familiar to any humanities graduate of the near past.

The other major issue that Nathanson has to confront in a 107 section poem that uses such dense language bordering on what Shklovsky would have called plotless prose is how to develop the poem – literally how to have a beginning, middle & end. On first reading, his impulses are very close to my own in using a structure that one might think of as musical, beginning with shorter movements, proceeding to longer ones, using each section to identify, develop & sustain its own unique pitch. I’m reminded of Peter Yates’ great definition of content in music as aesthetic consistency & Nathanson would be an example of the principle. It helps that he has an ear that is continually complicated by an overlay of mind – think of that line above as a mechanism for identifying a level of communicable anxiety. At that level, this poem is one long elaboration of the senses, yet it’s just as deeply embedded in history & brings a reading list may cause some conservative poets to feel that Nathanson’ encroaching on their turf: Robert Frost, Clarence Major, Yehudi Amichai. It’s a complex production, yet completely governed by desire & its cognates.

Presumably in the next 12 months or thereabouts, both of these books will be readily available and the mystery of how come Tucson has been such a vital center for poetry these past 15 years will seem considerably less mysterious to us auslanders. We should thank publishers Charles Alexander & Leslie Scalapino for making this possible. It is long overdue.