Saturday, August 28, 2004


I'm going to be heading down to San Antonio, Texas for a few days. As always when I travel for work, it's hard to know if I'm going to be able to post (for reasons that have more to do with my laptop than anything else). If I can, I shall. If not, I should return by Thursday.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Collaborations between poets & painters have evolved into a genre thanks in good part to the work of Robert Creeley & several members of the New York School over the past half century. More recently, Susan Bee & Charles Bernstein have given the phenomenon an even more post-avant twist with several projects, including Little Orphan Anagram, a volume published with just 35 copies that was jaw droppingly beautiful & prohibitively expensive. Before it sold out & became the domain of book art (as distinct from art book) collectors.

Francie Shaw is a painter whose work may be best known to this audience through her many book covers for language poets, including volumes by Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian & David Bromige (as well as for the first edition of In the American Tree*), though her sets for the San Francisco Poet’s Theater in the 1970s & ‘80s may have been even more awe inspiring. There is in her line a sense of balance & efficacy, a calm confidence, that I think you can find in the written line of many West Coast poets, such as Kit Robinson or Norman Fischer. There is, in fact, a fascinating study yet to be written on the influence of painting & music on Western Langpo, and that study would center on the contributions of the work of Shaw & the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

In Playing Bodies, Shaw and Bob Perelman have extended the possibility of collaboration. Playing Bodies is a book that I don’t think could have been done by collaborators who haven’t been married for 30 years as have Perelman & Shaw. As such, it’s a unique opportuniuty to see & read work contextualized by an almost unfathomable familiarity & intimacy.

There are of course a million ways for any two individuals to collaborate, regardless of the media involved. Shaw began her series of 52 relatively small paintings of blue figures on a white background (in her introduction to the Granary Press edition, Susan Stewart compares Shaw’s paintings to Delft tiles) – their actual size is quite close to what we get in the book. At some point in the process, Perelman began writing responses. It’s not clear that it ever became a true dialog, with Shaw responding in turn to Perelman’s poems – did he ever write ones to which she painted – tho the book has the feel of dialog throughout.

Modeled after toy action figures Shaw had at hand, her paintings involve three recurring actors – a generic dinosaur & two generically gendered humans, one male, one female. In each of the 52 paintings, the dino (who is likewise “of human scale”) is involved or entangled with one figure. The paintings are evenly divided so that the male figure (in a dark oversized suit) appears 26 times, as does the female in a light smock or chemise.

In an afterword, Perelman writes that
In response to my first attempt to write a companion poem, [Shaw] talked about the one that is now #3, telling me that I was just taking the point of view of one of the figures, but that for her both figures formed a single event.
It’s true that most of Perelman’s poems occur in the first person, addressed to the second & if an action is referenced, the “I” appears almost always to be the human figure. But in Shaw’s paintings as well, it is the human who almost always appears to be striving. Because the peopled figures were, in Shaw’s word, “bendable” & the dino of a harder plastic, its immobility gives it a sort of monolithic muteness. Her paintings are very much the tale of a Garbo-esque Dino beseeched by longing humans. The humans wrestle, tumble, climb, lift (and are lifted), snuggle & otherwise harass their beloved, but the dino retains a constant posture, regardless of the position into which it is placed. These are, as Shaw notes, not action paintings but “still lifes of three small figures”

But just as these postures mime action, so also they figure attitude & emotion. The human figures are poignant with longing, the dino blasé with diffidence. The result sets up a collaboration between painter & poet that feels very much like a correspondence, but one in which each is taking the same role. The silence of the dino throughout is stunning.

In the painting Perelman mentioned above, the female figure is reaching out as if about to hug the dino. Their heads touch. To accomplish this, she must stretch herself, so that only one foot touches the ground, the other raised behind her. Perelman’s poem reads

I want it
away from me
and I’ll push
as hard as I have to

It’s wrong
and if it doesn’t back off the wrong spot
I’ll kiss it
right in the kisser

It’s not right
that you’re here
I need you
pushed off the right spot

Where Shaw argues still life, Perelman sees want & need, right & wrong. These dynamics stay in play throughout Playing Bodies. It’s a fascinating, deeply moving tour de force for Perelman & Shaw alike.

A word on the introduction by Susan Stewart. Brief & straight forward, it’s perhaps the most useful preface to a book of poetry I’ve ever read. It’s a model of how to approach what is always a difficult, thankless task, having the first word in a volume that is not one’s own.

*Even if the National Poetry Foundation bungled it by using a matte cover stock instead of the glossy finish that had been promised.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Of all the books I brought with me on the trip to Washington, the most surprising, or surprisingly intense, is David Perry’s New Years. I’ve written favorably of this New Yorker (freshly transplanted back to hometown Kansas City) here before, but in this little, limited edition – Noah Eli Gordon’s Braincase Press has printed just 100 copies – Perry kicks it up a notch, maybe two. It’s like (forgive the sports analogy) when a power pitcher suddenly gets pinpoint control – they go from being a good middle-of-the-rotation starter into becoming Sandy Koufax or Randy Johnson. This book is that good.

Interestingly enough, one of the undecidable questions for me in reading this text, at least in its early pages, is whether these brilliant prose constructions are all one work or a series of independent pieces. You might imagine that this would be a sign of weakness but it’s just the opposite – each paragraph, set off by space & (with a significant exception) starting with a series of words all in small caps (yet another feature the new Blogger won’t support) is so thorough in its realization that they can function either way. Here is one section, a little more than midway through the book:
THE FORMAL TAILORING OF LINES forces a posture I can’t hold and I collapse in front of the mirror and everyone. It’s for a funeral, and while I make my split-second dream passage from boy to man and back again, the great swan boat in which my grandfather lies recedes into the distance, obscured by reeds. I’m only four, although six feet already, and freshly anxious that my new teacher might expect me to know multiplication. A pair of doves have made their nest on the fire escape, and I’m as happy as can be.
There is a crispness to every sentence here that cannot be faked. Do all four sentences refer to a single dream, or four separate situations? That this question could be answered either way – and something very much like it is true of almost all the paragraphs in this book – is an index of just how exact Perry’s sense of balance proves.

Since this book has been printed in such a short run & deserves actually to be read by thousands, it’s good that excerpts are available on the web in the DC Poetry Anthology 2003 and the Subtext Poetry Archive.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Something I can’t quite place my finger on tells me that, deep down, Elizabeth Willis and I have very different aesthetics. The prose poems in Meteoric Flowers, her most recent volume (and a gorgeous production from Michael Cross’ Atticus Finch press), are impeccably crafted. They’re thoughtful, even beautiful.

An hour from now, however, I won’t recall a single poem with any great clarity. In a day or two, even my favorite phrases (“I, Walt Whitman, with Texas in my mouth”) will dissolve from memory. All that will remain will be an impression of the linguistic equivalent of pastels, soft edges, perfect angles, precise as an English garden.

It is perhaps my problem with the well-wrought urn that is getting in the way here. The quality of “wroughtness” seems very much the primary value in these pieces & Willis is a master at her craft – there’s never a wrong or uncertain move.

Yet I feel that these poems could be so much stronger if only there were a few mistakes, some real stumbles or blunders that would reveal a less defended author present. For under these glazed surfaces, I can’t seem to find any element of risk. And I think risk is what I need to see in order to trust the poet.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The first (of eleven) books that I actually finish on my vacation is Joanne Kyger's God Never Dies, a sixteen-poem suite that is itself the record of a journey, a month spent in Oaxaca. Curiously, here's a typo on the first page, dating the poem in the future "December 7, 2004 Sunday" even tho the title page instructs us otherwise - the journal encompasses December 7, 2003 through January 9 of this year - the idea of a Kyger poem written in the future is not an inapt figure for her work. The reason being that there is a descriptive capacity in her poetry that gives her poems the timeless quality one associates with certain great photographers, such as Atget. The intial poem is a case in point (and I'd quote it here in its entirety if only Blogger didn't "erase" the spaces needed to move lines away from the left margin).

Exactness is everything in Kyger's work - it's the literary equivalentof a Buddhist call for attention. The poem consists of two stanzas, the first seven lines long, starting close to the center of the page's invisible first line, drifting left & right in succeeding lines as tho no left margin actually existed, the stanza organized in fact around a dazzling display of the letter "p" in various combinations (pronouncing, droopy spider plant, perk up, cup). The stanza is characteristic Kyger in its domestic focus - the depiction of a birdsong & a plant, the latter of which in fact is a means of focusing not on the plant as such, but on its vibrancy responding to a cup of water.

The second stanza consists of two lines, both of which adhere to a hard left margin:

      Stroke of brush in painting

     Pitch of tone in writing

Not all of the poems in this 300-copy edition are this focused &, tho most are longer, none goes so far as three dozen lines. Kyger's commitment to attention permits a fair amount of lateral association, the mind skipping for the most part playfully. When that happens, we become aware that it is attention itself, rather than some narrative figuration, that we are witnessing.

Kyger shares this particular conjunction of values with relatively few other poets, Robert Grenier & the late Larry Eigner among them. Unlike them, though, Kyger makes the case for an argument that total playfulness & total attention are one (even when, say, discussing something as non-playful as the war in Iraq). Kyger has been one of our finest poets now for over 40 years. God Never Dies reveals her to be at the top of her game. Books can be bought from Bridge Street Books or directly from Blue Press, 515 Walnut Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. The cost is $6.00.

Monday, August 23, 2004

The main place we rented in Washington was a house right on the Dungeness River, immediately south of Sequim proper, in a small retirement village on the north coast of the Olympic penninsula. The fact that the "e" in Sequim is silent separates the locals from the auslanders, but we've been here before & actually know our way well enough about town to get breakfast & do some shopping the first morning without having to do much hunting around.

As I always do when "on holiday," I took along a big stack of poetry books to read. It's a totally indulgent list -- I expected to love them all. A couple are books I've been in the middle of for a long time & don't want ever to end: Lyn Hejinian's The Fatalist and Rachel Blau DuPlessis' Drafts 1-38: Toll. Others are books that I'm rereading: Louis Zukofsky's "A"-22-23 in its original Viking Compass / Cape Editions volume, Graham Foust's first book, As in Every Deafness (trying to resolve how I feel about its many, many heroin references), plus Peter Gizzi's Some Values of Landscape and Weather.

One volume is a book I started over 12 years ago on a similar vacation, that one up to Twin Lakes in the Sierra in California just before my own twins were born: John Ashbery's Flow Chart. Krishna was quite pregnant with the boys at that point, so not all that mobile, which meant that we sat around the rather de shabile cabin reading a lot, wonder just what parenting would bring. A month later, she was on bed rest & the births of the boys disrupted everything, including my reading of that book. It's taken me this long to start over.

But the rest are new to me completely, even if their authors are for the most part familiar. These books include: Plus of course, Duncan's H.D. Book & his correspondence with H.D., A Great Admiration.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

There is, you will note, a new little gizmo at the top of my screen, what Blogger calls its "navbar." In theory, it is less obtrusive and runs across the whole of my screen just one line high or thereabouts. So much for theory. At some point, that search box is supposed to let you search this blog for specific details (what have I said about Duncan? about Olson? about you?), but Blogger maketh no commitment as to when that might happen. For now, I just think of it as part of Blogger's ongoing wysi-NOT-wyg program. Snarl.

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