Saturday, March 11, 2006

A good but brief interview with Kyle Schlesinger in Buffalo’s ArtVoice.


A couple of good posts on Thomas Meyer by Jeff Davis, including a test of translation, resurrecting a model of close reading that Clayton Eshleman pioneered in the great journal Caterpillar.


This blog got noticed by Slate, not for anything written about poetry, but about fashion…. What impact did this have on visits here? So far as I can tell, absolutely none.


Twenty-three days after her death, the Los Angeles Times weighs in with an obit of Barbara Guest. Again we get the trifecta: Guest is associated in this short piece with modernism, Abstract Expressionism and language poetry, as if these terms were commensurate and flowed easily one into the other. At least the examples of Abstract Expressionism are Pollock & de Kooning, the example of langpo Charles Bernstein.


Last night, right before the toasters – rebel robots called Cylons, bent on the destruction of the human race – arrived to capture the human colony on the planet of New Caprica in the season-ending episode of Battlestar Gallactica, a union rep, Galen Tyrol, played by Aaron Douglas, gave a rousing speech that was, word for word, Mario Savio’s call to action from the steps of Sproul Hall just prior to the Free Speech Movement sit-in on December 3, 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop.

To someone who was fortunate enough to hear those lines the first time they were given, that was a very weird moment of déjà vu indeed.

Friday, March 10, 2006

I have come across a perfectly wonderful book of antiwar poems. Or perhaps I’ve come across a perfectly wonderful book of love poems. It’s the same book, all too aptly named At War with the U.S. Sometimes the poems are manifestly antiwar texts:

I am no maker

what is left is ashes

of whatever fire, what ever
was consumed

To go on
is the act, what is left

is always changing

Cinders of a poem

cinders of a body
killed for ferocious love

Sometimes the poems are more purely love poems:

Her innocence

I feed off that

I am so greedy for her
life. It’s so hard

to come back, throw away
your life at the typewriter

Rather toss with her
on the living room rug

go back, read the old poems
while she’s asleep abed

while you are, separate historian

Sometimes they’re in between:

At war with the U.S.

I surrender

I embrace you

get off my back

in the light
where I can see you

Or they come from an angle that is more complicated:

The white car
below my window
has a window
in which I see
my daughter’s
one year old head

She is off to her war called school

I wave
& my fingers look like hers
save that they hold
a pen
whose brand name
is half-erased
by the ancient sweat
of one thumb,
four fingers

And sometimes it’s the very banality of the consequence that makes it seem so very brutal:

Her first black eye
just when Nixon is getting his

Who hit her they ask on the street

The world came by & did it

& who runs this world
indeed indeed indeed indeed, a vortex
that may come around
& slug you with a 38th parallel
any day of the week

What’s this. Sunday

The swelling has just about
returned to normal

As this last poem suggests, however, this isn’t the Iraq debacle that’s being referenced here, but the war in Indochina a generation ago. This book was published 32 years ago, written by the great Canadian poet George Bowering, clearly enamored with so much of the U.S., its culture & poetics, and yet horrified all the same. The saddest thing is . . . it’s all still true:

Reader I just want you here right now

Later you may go where you will

I just want to get the counting over with

the exchange of prisoners

to detach a name from nature’s hodge podge

This is my moment, our moment

Thursday, March 09, 2006

With regards to Project Runway, my first instinct, as it turned out, was correct:

I’ve already decided – weeks ago in fact – that [Daniel] Vosovic, who until recently was a competitive gymnast on the national level, is the one who should win. If he doesn’t, it will be because [Chloe] Dao – who was born to Vietnamese parents in Laos as they made their way to the U.S. – has more experience. In some ways, she already is what he’s trying to become (check out her fall 2004 line), a successful designer.

Chloe’s professionalism was the element cited by the judges in naming Dao as the winner of Project Runway. And while I didn’t feel that her collection as a whole held together as well as a statement as did the more subtle colors & textures offered by bad boy Santino Rice, it’s worth noting that Dao took the most risks, and that is exactly what the judges wanted. Michael Kors made a point of offering Vosovic a job before he could even leave the runway. Maybe Kors is the winner of Project Runway after all.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tonight is the finale of Project Runway, about which I’ve written before. After looking at all three of the finalists’ collections up on the website, I hate to have to say it, but I think the winner is going to be Santino Rice. His collection has a look and feel to it of a single overarching vision. Daniel Vosovic, my personal favorite, has a collection that looks far too safe. Chloe Dao takes more risks in some of her pieces than does Rice, but only about two-thirds of her collection really hangs together.

Last week’s episode attempted, belatedly I thought, to humanize Rice, showing him playing with his best friends’ kids, talking about his stretch of homelessness, even apologizing to Chloe & Daniel for being such an unrelenting schmuck throughout the season. Given that the show didn’t even touch on Vosovic’s career as a competitive gymnast, I felt that the narrative markers were being put in place.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

When Mark Linenthal first introduced George Oppen to Robert Duncan, Oppen’s first words were, “Robert, I want to talk with you about your vowels.” When, on the plane to Houston Tuesday evening, I opened Chris McCreary’s Dismembers – it just came on Monday – those words echoed again for me. To a degree I haven’t heard since Duncan, McCreary lends his ear ludic sense:

What washes over, hovers lower.

He admires the shades,
stares at shadows for hours. Neither oblique nor orphic,
this sense of oblivion.

Of course metamorphosis. & how obvious to crack, crumble,
OK, but please don’t sink, slip, split,

That is the second section, from a total of five, of “Phantom Planet,” one of the poems here in verse. At times, in the prose poems, the effect is even more dense:

Portents of nonporous borders sweep between sleep and sickness, gently exfoliating all skin types, toking on lowly hash pipes, indulging our decadence in the face of dastardly disaster as Klaxons click off at a clap.

Cayenne keeps aggressors at bay, each comma causes delays w/in the line, pauses in this barely varied scheme.

Which is the 11th piece in a larger series entitled “False Correspondences,” which harkens specifically of work that Robert did in the very early 1950s, prior to the emergence of Opening of the Field.¹ And the deliberate use of the abbreviated “w/in” is itself a marker that Duncan was in McCreary’s mind at the time this was written.

Like Robert’s work, this is stuff that people are either going to relish or despise. There is not much room for a middle ground. In the first passage above what happens referentially is nothing. It might as well be the confession of a hash smoker, stunned into a gentle oblivion. The second passage carries extends that same sense even further.

This book feels looser & more free than the work of McCreary’s I’ve read previously, less worried about perfection & more open to whatever comes. As a result, tho it is not a thick book (unpaginated but almost certainly no more than 80 pages), it feels quite full, as if capable of looking in all directions, even when, as in these passages, it is taking a private account of material close at hand, often no further than the ear.

I’m on the relish side of that either/or bar myself, intrigued most, I think, not when he follows his ear, but those instances when he turns away from its potential for predictability, the way, in the first passage above, that final word disappear redeploys those clotted s & p sounds from the previous lines, letting it end on an open r. The other element I trust completely, tho I’ve seen it before in his work, is the twinkle of his wit, that wonderfully o’er the top dastardly disaster in the prose piece above, the deprecation of this barely varied scheme.

My sense – and this is a presumption – is that this book, even tho a step forward from McCreary’s earlier books, remains preparatory to an as yet unannounced (undreamed?) major project that he is still carefully stalking out. I find myself held where he is today, looking forward greatly to where he’s going to be in, say, another ten years.


¹ Tho there is evidence that a draft of the title poem of that 1960 breakthrough volume was first written some around 1953.

Monday, March 06, 2006

One of the ironic coincidences of American history is that the oldest buildings still standing in San Francisco date from that fateful year, 1776 – a part of Mission Dolores, a building in the Presidio &, if memory serves, another out in the Fillmore district. In the century between that first construction and the arrival of my own ancestors in the late 19th century, an indigenous population virtually disappeared as the City went through Spanish hands before becoming a part of U.S. territorial expansion. And the City – the only town for which I’ll ever capitalize that word – has continued to undergo an absolutely constant, relentless process of renewal – plowing under, displacement, new streets built literally on top of the old – in some parts atop the debris of abandoned ships, none too stable in an earthquake.

Fisherman’s Wharf is a curio for tourists, not fishermen, South of Market has been entirely gentrified, North of Market redefined again & again. South Beach didn’t even exist a decade ago. You can’t find the home where Robert Frost was born in St. Anne’s Valley, because you can’t find St. Anne’s Valley, but it’s right there on Eddy Street as it runs into Market, not so far from the original branch of the Bank of Italy, which changed its name in 1942 to the Bank of America & never looked back. The black community settled into the Fillmore for the first time during the war years because the Japanese residents there had been herded into concentration camps.

The history of San Francisco is one of populations arriving from all over the world – my own ancestors landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from England, then made their way to Anchorage before heading south – then struggling to hang on in the face of ongoing waves on immigration & enormous pressures from capital development. In the 1970s, I worked, successfully, to get the Board of Supervisors to enact a law preserving residential hotel units, primarily to save 10,000 homes in the Tenderloin that were in those days largely being used by the elderly & disabled. Within a decade, waves of new residents from Southeast Asia forced much of that original population elsewhere, with many of the disabled moving instead to the area around 16th & Mission. The process itself was simple – a family of six, say, receiving assistance from the federal government, qualified for more funds than a single mentally ill person, which meant that landlords could charge them more for living in the same cramped quarters I found claustrophobic enough even for a single person. Where, in the 1930s, the lower Tenderloin was the first out-of-the-closet gay community in the United States, an adjunct to the city’s role as a center of merchant shipping, now we find Little Saigon.

Barbara Jane Reyes’ Poeta en San Francisco, just out from Tinfish Press, is intense, beautiful, sad, intelligent. It’s one of the great poems about San Francisco, not unlike, say, John Wieners’ Hotel Wentley Poems. Written mostly in English, with some intermixing of both Spanish & Tagalog, Reyes’ title may refer back to Lorca’s encounter with New York, but her focus is quite different. It is the fate of these populations, from the Ohlone to the present, that concerns her, especially the transformation of her own Filipino community from their ancestral home, with its own complex, compromised colonial history, into the new world.

The book is built symmetrically around three sections called [orient], [dis•orient] & [re•orient], in turn bracketed by relative brief pro- and epilogues. With [dis•orient] placed squarely at the center, Reyes moves through a cycle of poems, initially in verse form, a stanza of English followed by another of Tagalog, first in script, then phonetically. This in turn gives way to a series of prose poems, works in verse, even prayers:

[ave maria]

our lady who crushes serpents
our lady of lamentations
our lady full of grace whose weeping statues bleed,
our lady who makes the sun dance, pray for us

our lady of salt pilgrimage
our lady of building demolition
our lady of crack houses
santa maria, madre de dios, pray for us sinners

our lady of unbroken hymens
preteen vessel of god’s seed
your uterus is a blessed receptacle.

our lady of neon strip joints
our lady of blowjobs in kerouac alley
our lady of tricked out street kids, pray for us

blessed mother of cholo tattoos
you are the tightest homegirl

our lady of filas and lipliner
our lady of viernes santo procession
our lady of garbage-sifting toothless men
our lady of urban renewal’s blight

pray for us sinners        ipanalangin n’yo kamin makasalanan
now and at the hour     ngayon at kung
of our death                kami ay mamamatay


Although, seemingly the least postmodern poem in the book – the end of [dis•orient] returns obsessively to the form of prayer – “[ave maria]” conveys a lot of the tensions in the book very quickly, culturally, linguistically, politically. This poem comes immediately after one that visits the International Hotel site in San Francisco (just a couple of blocks down the street from Kerouac Alley), where, in the early 1970s, a building filled with Filipino men was plowed over in the name of development – last I saw, that development was yet to turn up. The opacity of Tagalog here is matched elsewhere in this book with a similar failure to understand English – what does “m-town” mean? Who was Charlie during the Vietnam War? – and will lead, in the [re•orient] section, to a fabulous piece called “[Filipino Names],” like Rocky, Hazel, Ichiban, Bong, Dodo & GE

Does not stand for General Electric.
But no one can tell us her real name.

Elsewhere there is an allusion to calle de sección ocho & I wondered how many readers – especially at a distance, physically or culturally – will get it that that is a reference to federally subsidized housing. There are moments here in which I deeply felt how cut off I am by my own monophone roots, but this book is set up I think to let nearly everyone have some sense of this. What it is for me might not be the passages it would be for someone else, but the presence is pretty much inescapable.

In the hands of a lesser talent, this direct confrontation with global politics could suffer from what I think of as “John Sayles disease,” obviousness, a poetry to be agreed with rather than experienced. It is precisely because Reyes doesn’t settle for simple, unconflicted answers – us good, them bad, modernity (and post-) even worse – but rather lets the conflicts stay conflicts, the tensions stay tense, that render this a compelling reading experience. You don’t need an m-town in your hometown for this to be a very important book.

Sunday, March 05, 2006